Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that is an UNEDITED excerpt from the book.
“Stop fussing, you look beautiful. Can we go downstairs now? I’m starving.”
Tatiana glanced up into her vanity mirror and met the eyes of the dark, handsome man behind her. She glared at him in annoyance. Her cousin, Desmond, had come to escort her downstairs to the dinner party celebrating Damien’s twenty-seventh birthday. It would be Esmeralda’s last soiree until the new baby’s christening, and because it was her husband’s birthday, it was important to Esmeralda that they not be late.
Esmeralda’s younger brother paced behind her impatiently, waiting for her select her jewelry for the evening. She had been dressed and her maid, Karen, had already arranged her hair beautifully. She was wearing her slippers and her reticule lay on the vanity table beside her. She was stalling.
She knew it and Desmond knew it, which was why he was being so impatient.
“Just another moment,” she insisted as she pretended to rifle through the velvet-lined jewelry box that Esmeralda had given her. “I want to choose just the right pieces.”
Desmond rolled his eyes and sighed. “No one is going to be looking at your jewelry Tatiana,” he insisted. “They’re all going to be looking at your face. Like always. Quit stalling and let’s go.”
“I don’t even think I should be going,” she mumbled as she clasped a gold chain with a large emerald pendant around her neck. It matched her green satin gown to perfection. She fastened the matching earrings to her ears and slid the matching ring on over her elbow-length, white gloves. “They’re only going to gossip about me when my back is turned.”
“Don’t give them the satisfaction by not showing up,” Desmond insisted as she stood and looped the drawstring of her reticule around her wrist. “The scandal will pass and they’ll find something else to talk about.”
Tatiana nodded in acquiescence, knowing that missing the party would do no good. If anything, it would cause the gossips to speculate over her absence. She checked her appearance one last time in the full-length mirror against the wall and turned to accept Desmond’s arm.
“Finally,” he mumbled as he moved toward the door swiftly. Tatiana had to move at a near run to keep up with him.
“Slow down!” she exclaimed. “She isn’t going anywhere, you know.”
She watched the color rising in Desmond’s cheeks at the mention of her; Lady Abigail Norton, the girl who had stolen Desmond’s young heart. Just like Tatiana had been, Desmond was enthralled with the glittering world of the royal court. He was entranced by the opulence and the glitter. He was head over heels in love with Lady Abigail.
“She is not the reason I’m in a hurry,” he insisted as he reluctantly slowed his pace. “I told you, I’m starving.”
Tatiana chuckled and let the matter go for now. She knew that what he was saying was only half true. He did have an oversized appetite, possibly because he had grown up and filled out at an alarming rate in the last couple of years. Tatiana glanced at him from the corner of her eye and tried to see him as the ladies of the court must see him. Tall and impossibly broad, with a swarthy complexion and dark hair and eyes, Desmond was like something out of every young girl’s dream. It was no wonder they practically threw themselves at him.
Tatiana’s heart fluttered as they neared the larger, formal dining room used for entertaining. She could hear the hum of voices and the tinkling of glasses and knew that nearly everyone had arrived. She halted in her tracks just outside the dining room doors, forcing Desmond to stop as well. He glanced down at her silently, waiting for her to decide when she was ready to go inside. He gave her hand a light, reassuring squeeze.
Tatiana drew in a deep breath and squared her shoulders before nodding to Desmond that she was ready. He gestured toward the footmen braced on either side of the double doors, and the servants swung them open.
Conversation ceased. The tinkling sound of wine glasses clinking together and silver flatware against china faded against the backdrop of the occasional whisper or gasp. She drew herself up to her full but meager height and raised her chin a few inches, putting an additional dose of grace into her movements as she floated in on her cousin’s arm under the intense scrutiny of one hundred pairs of eyes.
Alexandra, the Queen Mother who was recently returned from a tour of Italy, stood and crossed the room swiftly yet gracefully, like a burgundy silk ship navigating the stormy waters of the expensive Oriental rug. Her smile was forced and tight as she halted their progress, her back to the guests who pretended to go back to their first soup course. They were, of course, listening intently, some of them even leaning slightly toward the doorway with the white broth of a fish soup spilling from the sides of their ornate spoons.
“What are you doing here?” she hissed, her eyes narrowed and fixed on Tatiana as if she were a tavern whore.
The arrogant tilt to Tatiana’s chin came down a notch—Damien’s mother was an intimidating woman.
“I believe I was invited,” she said coolly, careful to keep her tone low. Behind the Queen Mother, she noticed Damien rising from the head of the table and Esmeralda peeking from behind the high back of her chair at the other end, her expression one of concern.
Damien smiled and nodded politely as he walked the length of the impossibly long table, his pace brisk, his polished evening shoes clicking noisily on the gleaming marble floors.
“How good of you to join us!” he exclaimed just loud enough for everyone to hear, his tone warm as he bent from his considerable height to kiss Tatiana on the cheek. He shook Desmond’s hand and patted him on the back before placing a hand on each of their shoulders to guide them toward the table.
“Mother, you remember Esmeralda’s brother, Desmond, and her cousin, Tatiana,” he said with an icy glare in her direction before turning his warm and genuine smile on Tatiana. “Esmeralda has saved you both seats near her,” he said as they approached the foot of the table where Esmeralda was seated. Sure enough, to her left and right were the only empty seats left at the table. Desmond made a beeline for the seat at Esmeralda’s right, placing him squarely beside Lady Abgail, who sat batting her eyelashes at him. Tatiana turned to Damien with her best smile, ignoring Alexandra’s blistering stare as the woman returned to her seat.
“Happy birthday,” she said softly before taking her seat.
She hated to steal attention away from the man at an occasion meant to celebrate him, but she couldn’t help it if the royal court were all a bunch of gossips. Ignoring them, she thanked the footman spooning a creamy fish soup into the bowl in front of her. Tatiana flicked the buttons at the wrists of her evening gloves, pulling them back from her fingers discreetly before taking up her spoon.
It was as if her first bite of soup signaled everyone at the table to resume their mealtime conversations. The low and steady buzz of voices picked up, although several pairs of eyes continued turning her way throughout the course.
“What’s going on?” Tatiana whispered to Raina—Esmeralda’s mother—who was seated to her right.
The beautiful Gypsy woman was only recently beginning to show signs of her age, with a few strands of silver streaking her dark hair and the slight crinkle of lines near the eyes and mouth. Those lines were more pronounced now, as she turned to her niece, her amber eyes dull and mouth pinched.
“Oh dear,” she whispered. “Don’t concern yourself with it, it’s only gossip. Please, let us just enjoy the evening.”
Brow wrinkled in consternation, she turned her gaze on Esmeralda. “Just tell me,” she whispered. “Why is everyone staring at me as I’ve grown another head?”
With a deceptively careless movement, Esmeralda sent her spoon sailing to the floor.
“Oh no,” she said just loud enough for those closest to them to hear.
“Oh, let me get that,” Tatiana offered, bending at the waist at the same time as Esmeralda.
Two dark heads met beneath the table and Esmeralda whispered quickly in hushed tones.
“It is about Lord Forsyth.”
Tatiana frowned. “I will be so grateful when our elopement becomes old news.”
“I’m afraid it is. There is new gossip now,” Esmeralda replied as she pretended to feel around for the silver spoon concealed beneath the skirt of her voluminous evening gown. “Word has spread from Barony already of the return of the Lady Knights from the island of Martinique.”
She nodded her understanding as she remembered Isabelle mentioning a recent rash of kidnappings in Barony. She and King Serge had dispatched the leaders of the female soldier’s regiment to the French settled island to solve the mystery of the kidnappings and bring the missing women home.
“The rumor is,” Esmeralda continued, “that the man responsible for the kidnappings is none other than Lord Forsyth. They say that he was selling the women to brothels and other seedy establishments under the pseudonym Dorian Blake. The court is all abuzz over it.”
Tatiana nearly fell from her chair as Esmeralda righted herself, producing the spoon with a radiant smile as she shouted, “I’ve found it!” a bit louder than necessary. A footman was at her side in an instant, trading a clean spoon for the dropped one. By the time Tatiana set herself to rights in the chair, she felt as if she were going to be sick.
The meal continued around them as snatches of conversation about the latest fashion plates recently arrived from France mingled with talk of a newly opened pugilists club for men. Tatiana, who six months earlier would have reveled in talk of the latest French fashions, barely heard a word of it. Suddenly, the fish soup was too thick and her throat felt as if it had constricted, barring all food from entering her stomach. She decided to sip her wine instead, hoping that the rush of spirits through her veins would calm the devastation wreaking havoc on her senses.
Andrew…her Andrew…a peddler of human flesh? It had been easy to think of him as a hopeless romantic who fell in and out of love easily after reading his letter. Then, after finding his hidden wife and children, Tatiana had painted him as a rake and a lecher in her mind. But this…this went beyond all reason. This was the final nail in the coffin housing her reputation. Even now, as the first soup course was taken away and replaced with another, she could feel the eyes of many of the court’s men upon her.
Several arched eyebrows issued scandalous invitations that set her cheeks on fire. She knew they were wondering just what sort of scandalous things she’d allowed Andrew to do to her. Perhaps even—and the thought made her cringe—if he’d lent her services out to other men during their time together. She could feel the stares of the women, judging and condemning her, branding her a whore. She was no better in their eyes than the courtesans who carried on discreetly with their husbands.
Tatiana signaled a footman for more wine and forced herself to take a few bites of turnip soup, even though she abhorred the vegetable. If she were going to survive the evening, she was going to need lots of wine, and could not imbibe on an empty stomach. Her glass was refilled and she sipped greedily, ignoring the concerned glances from Esmeralda and the inane chatter of Desmond and Lady Abigail from across the table.