She said no! After all James had been through, all he had done to arrive at this moment in his life, the lady he loved, and whom he had thought loved him in return, had refused his proposal of marriage. The relevant fact being, James had thought Beatrix loved him in return. They had not spoken of it before now, and sadly, it seemed she did not feel the same love for James as he felt for her. She could not, when she had refused to become his wife. James glanced up through the window from inside his carriage, toward the east wing of the huge manor house from which he was about to depart. The country home of Lord Benedict Winter, the older brother of the woman James loved. The windows reflected back at him in the weak March sun, and yet he still imagined he could see Beatrix there, looking down at him longingly from behind the curtains as he in turn gazed up at the rooms he knew she occupied in this vast mansion. Beautiful Beatrix, with whom James had fallen in love at first sight when they first met a month ago. Because of the scars upon her face, Beatrix had, for the past ten years, chosen to shut herself away from Society. Those scars were the remnants of the shattering of glass during a carriage accident all those years ago, in which both her parents had been killed. After their initial meeting James had not even noticed those scars. Or, if he did, then it was with gratitude Beatrix had survived the accident. But James knew, from conversing with her brother, that Lady Beatrix believed they precluded her from ever being worthy of the love of any gentleman. It would seem she now included the new Earl of Ipswich amongst their number. It did not help that James’s title now made him a member of the Society Beatrix had long ago decided she could never be a part of.
She preferred to avoid the sideways glances and whispered comments of those ladies and gentlemen, knowing they could do no other than stare at the evidence of those injuries on her face and throat. As far as James was concerned those scars were no longer as noticeable as Beatrix believed them to be. They now appeared as nothing more than a network of silver lines on her jaw and down the side of her neck. In any case, James had assured Beatrix he would happily forgo the company of Society if she did not wish to be a part of it. Goodness knows he had done without the approval of those superior ladies and gentlemen during his own ten years of exile. He would happily continue to do so for the rest of his life, as long as he could have Beatrix at his side as his wife. Still, Beatrix had refused his marriage proposal. James had no idea what he was going to do now. He had already spent years hiding his true identity amongst the poor in London’s slums. Then the nerve-racking days and nights of pretending to be the valet of Julius Soames, the Earl of Andover, so they might find the evidence which would prove James’s uncle was not the true Earl of Ipswich.
That was followed by the scandal of his uncle committing suicide upon being confronted with accusations of his attempt to kill James ten years ago and his usurping of the title. These events had been quickly set right when the Prince Regent himself had recognized James as the rightful earl, and afterward enfolded James into his close social circle of friends. The only reason James had endured those previous ten years of hardship had been for the continued safety of his younger sister, their uncle being her rightful guardian until she reached the age of one and twenty. Julius Soames had fallen in love with Bethany, and she was now his countess, ensuring her continued health and happiness. But James could never regret the circumstances which had led to him meeting and falling in love with Beatrix. Indeed, he would gladly endure all that hardship again if it meant Beatrix would be his at the end of the ordeal. Except she had said no! Beatrix did not want him, or to become his wife. He’d endured all these past dramatic weeks of reclaiming his title with the sole intention of claiming Beatrix as his own. Now that she had refused him, he had no idea what he was going to do with the future stretching out before him. “I trust you know what you are about by refusing him, my darling sister.
” Beatrix turned from looking out the window as the gleaming black Ipswich carriage moved steadily down the driveway toward the main road. She smiled warmly at Benedict, six years her senior and the man who had always been her hero. So much of one, she had recently learned, Benedict had denied his own happiness for many years out of his desire to protect and serve her. Benedict’s selfless self-sacrifice on her behalf was one of the reasons for Beatrix’s future actions and decisions. “I trust I do too, brother,” she answered ruefully before turning to watch wistfully out the window as the Ipswich carriage turned and then disappeared onto the road back to London. Taking James with it. CHAPTER ONE One week later Blackborne House, London “You are trembling, my dear.” Beatrix was so nervous, she was not in the least surprised her brother could feel her gloved hand trembling as it rested upon his forearm. Her whole body was trembling! As might be expected when, at the age of six and twenty, an age when most women would have been married for several years and have children of their own, she was about to enter a ballroom for the first time in her life. The magnificent ballroom in Blackborne House, to be precise.
The home of one of her brother Benedict’s closest friends, Gabriel Templeton, the Duke of Blackborne, and his beautiful duchess, Victory. Beatrix had known Gabriel for many years, and she had now met Victory several times too and knew the younger woman to be a kind and warmhearted young lady. No, her host and hostess were not the cause of Beatrix’s feelings of anxiety. The rest of Society was. After much anguished thinking, and no matter how the thought of it might still terrify her, Beatrix had known it was time for her to make her first appearance in Society. For her own sake, no one else’s. It was the only way, rather than hiding herself away in Surrey as she had been doing, she could ever become a woman who was worthy to be a wife and life mate to any gentleman. More specifically, the wife and life mate of Lord James Metford, the Earl of Ipswich. She had been too young to have been presented into Society before the accident that killed her parents and injured her, and had absolutely refused to do so in the ten years since. Until she met James several weeks ago and instantly fell in love with him.
He was so very handsome he had taken her breath away, and she had also learned he was kindness personified. No doubt at this point, Beatrix having refused his marriage proposal, James was not feeling particularly kindly disposed toward her. He no doubt believed Beatrix did not love him, when in fact the opposite was true. But to be worthy of his love, Beatrix knew she must become the woman whom James could stand proudly beside and proclaim to the whole world she was his beloved wife. That being the case, following James’s visit to Surrey the previous week, Beatrix had taken the determined step to come to London with Benedict and his new bride, Chloe, so that she might join them when they attended the events of the new London Season. Beatrix had now met all the wives of the three men who were her brother’s closest friends, one of them being Bethany, James’s own sister. Bethany had been sworn to silence by Beatrix’s sister-in-law, Chloe, in regard to Beatrix’s presence in London and the reason for it. Bethany had agreed to do so, not because she did not love her brother, but because she loved him very much and believed he and Beatrix would eventually find happiness together as equals rather than James feeling a need to constantly protect Beatrix against cruel tongues. Something which Beatrix also hoped for. Once in London, she had joined those four lovely young ladies in several outings to the shops during this past week.
She already had beautiful gowns aplenty for her life in the country, but Beatrix wished to commission a new gown to be made in time for her to attend the Blackbornes’ ball this evening. The five ladies had even experimented with several face adornments, beauty spots and such. But they had finally decided to paint a specific scene upon her cheek and throat which, although it did not hide the scars completely, did in fact complement what were now no more than delicate silver lines. Chloe had assured Beatrix that she was about to start a new fashion with the adornment, and that the only reason anyone would stare at her this evening was in envy for the depiction of the moon and stars against the inky dark sky on the paleness of her cheek and down her throat. Instead of avoiding the wagging tongues, Beatrix was about to deliberately draw attention to herself. After years of hiding, Beatrix no longer cared what people thought of her. Only James’s opinion mattered to her. She knew from conversations with Benedict that James had not been out in general Society this past week, although he had been seen at several of their clubs in the evenings, morosely over-imbibing in alcohol. But Victory, the Duchess of Blackborne, who’s own past circumstances meant she had known the adult James longer than any of them, had assured her that he would not dare to miss attending her ball this evening. Having been privately presented to the Prince Regent three days ago, Beatrix was now at liberty to also attend that ball and even to dance the waltz, if she so wished.
She was extremely nervous, but also had to admit to being a little excited at attending her first-ever ball. Which was why, against every moment of anxiety which had prevented her from entering Society for years before this, Beatrix now stood at her brother’s side and heard her name, along with that of Benedict and Chloe, announced by the Blackbornes’ butler to the other guests milling about the crowded ballroom. James believed he must be hearing things, or was possibly still foxed from drinking copious amount of brandy this past week. Indeed, he could not remember when he had last been sober before this evening, and his sobriety now had given him a pounding headache to prove it. So perhaps he was hearing things if he thought he’d heard Beatrix’s name announced along with that of her brother and sister-in-law. Except… A glance in the direction of the doorway of the Blackbornes’ ballroom showed Benedict Winter entering the room escorting a young lady on each arm. One of those ladies was his lovely wife, Chloe. The other— “Good God, it is Beatrix.” James spoke her name almost reverently. “What was that, old chap?” His brother-in-law, Lord Julius Soames, the Earl of Andover, glanced at him curiously before following the direction of his gaze.
“Shall we go and say hello, my dear?” He smiled warmly at the young lady who was now his wife and also James’s sister. James barely noticed their departure, his attention fixed on the beautiful woman now greeting their host and hostess as if they were old friends. Which he knew Gabriel would be, having long been a friend of Beatrix’s brother. But Beatrix seemed equally as relaxed in the company of Gabriel’s wife, Victory, and when Andover and his wife joined the party Beatrix greeted the two of them with that same warm familiarity. While James felt as if the ground had shaken and then disappeared completely from beneath his feet. He had last seen Beatrix one long week ago, and at the time, she had not mentioned anything about coming to London, let alone attending a ball while she was here. Admittedly, James had not been aware of much at all after Beatrix had turned down his proposal of marriage, but surely he would have taken note if she had said she intended coming to London when Benedict and Chloe did. Not that it mattered what might or might not have been said a week ago, Beatrix was here now! And looking so very beautiful in a gown of royal blue, her dark hair swept up in fashionable curls at her crown, with sapphires and diamonds glittering at her throat and earlobes.