For over a decade Sal Stornaway reigned over London’s theatre world as an acclaimed actress – and a notorious courtesan. In the face of gossip and ridicule, Richard Warwick, Earl of Cranbourne stood as her friend - and unrequited suitor. But Sal betrayed Richard and turning his back, he left for Paris.
Two years later, on the verge of wedding the respectable Lord Carberry, Sal travels to Paris to apologise to the man whose friendship she betrayed. But Richard has changed. In place of the kind and courteous man she once knew is a cynical rake, and Sal is torn between her sorrow at the loss of the friend she once knew and her unexpected and unwanted attraction to the man he has become.
When Sal and Richard incur the enmity of the cruel Marquis de Mont-Signonne, they are plunged into a series of events which tear away the layers of artifice between them. Desire flares between them but Richard wants just one thing from Sal – her love. And that is the one thing she can never give him.
Historical romance, set in 1816.
Acid scalded his voice. “I am quite certain I have not experienced a single diversion that the sophisticated Mrs Stornaway has not already tasted,” he said.
Her eyes flickered and a faint flush crept up her cheeks. He felt a savage stab of satisfaction.
“I fear you overestimate my sophistication, my lord,” she said. Her smile did not falter but his gaze dropped to her fingers, clasping her reticule in a white-knuckled grip.
“My apologies,” he said. “It has been a pleasure, Mrs Stornaway. Now if you will excuse me?” He turned away.
“Hold, Cranbourne.” She placed a hand on his arm and he caught her scent. Jasmine. He closed his eyes, his mouth suddenly dry. But then Sal had forever known her impact on him, had she not? Collecting himself he looked down at her hand, starkly white against the black superfine of his coat.
Flushing, she removed it. “I must speak with you.”
His brows raised and his dark gaze met hers. “But must I speak with you, Mrs Stornaway?”
“Your brother is married to my sister, Cranbourne. It is inconceivable that we should not be able to exchange polite words,” she pointed out, with a slight, careless smile. The colour in her cheeks had not receded.
“Have we not just done so?” he asked. “I had thought myself exceedingly polite.”
“You did not call on me.” The words seemed to slip out in a rush, a far cry from her usual poise. The hand she had placed on his arm twisted in her skirts.
“It must have slipped my mind,” he lied with ease. Her eyes narrowed and his urbane expression faded. “Shall we deal plainly, Mrs Stornaway – or should it be Miss Stearne?”
“You called me Sal once.”
“That was a long time ago.”
She raised her hand as if to acknowledge a hit. “Call me what you will.” Her slight smile acknowledged the ambiguity of her words. “And by all means speak plainly.”
“My brother deceived your sister when they met. He deceived you. I don’t believe I had committed the same sin.”
“No,” Sarah said. Her hands joined in front of her, as though she were bracing herself. Her face was lifted to the light, lamplight from the dim interior turning her pale skin to gold. The gleam of the mirrors reflected in her eyes. They were iridescent as a peacock feather, pale as the dawn. She must be past thirty now. She was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“Yet thanks to you my family was exposed to ridicule on a public stage for every gossip-hungry society vulture to paw over. A wholesale approach to exacting revenge don’t you think?”
“If you would only –
“What did I ever do to you, Mrs Stornawy to incur your wrath? Was I too steady in my attentions? Did I embarrass you?” Her face paled, skin tightening over the tilting, exotic cheekbones which had made her face famous throughout London.
“No, or course not. You are completely-”
“And now I hear that Mrs Stornaway is looking for a respectable husband – no, please don’t treat me as a fool, my brother is a regular correspondent.” His gaze was level, his mouth hard as iron. “I find I am not inclined to accommodate her sudden desire for my company.”
Sal blinked, as though tears were a heartbeat away. She seemed a creature of spun-glass and fractured ice, as though another word might cause her to shatter. Arms folding, he drowned the impulse to respond. Sal Stornaway was as fragile as cast iron and this was an act, a familiar one. He had seen her play the spurned lover on the stage of the Swan Theatre a hundred times.
The corner of her mouth lifted. “Plain dealing indeed.” Her voice was a husky whisper. “But you are making a mistake Cranbourne and one which you will regret.”
An ache in his jaw told him his teeth were clenching. He had much to learn about dissemblance.
“By God you hold yourself high,” he said. His hand moved to his pocket and he withdrew an enamelled snuffbox, engraved with a scene from Euripdes’ Bacchae, a grisly depiction of wine-mad bacchants holding aloft the decapitated head of Pentheus. “A reminder,” he said, flicking open the lid with one thumb, “of what happens to hapless gentlemen who tangle with women in thrall to the God of the theatre.”
Sal’s glance touched upon the box. “I am no scholar,” she said and he heard the thread of ice in her voice. “But I know drama. Your head is firmly attached to your shoulders, my lord. I think that it always was.” Raising her head she looked him in the eye, shoulders squared. “I merely came to apologise, Lord Cranbourne. My intended husband awaits me in London.”
A crackle of laughter from across the room punctuated their sudden silence.
“Should I be abashed by my own presumption?” Reaching out he placed a finger under her chin, raising her face as though for a kiss. He thought of the years he had bowed over her hand, venerated her like fairytale princess wrought of Sèvres china, a woman waiting for his rescue. He felt the interested gaze of the cafe’s customers, the hush of their chatter as they watched the scene unfold before them. He brought his lips close to hers, dangerously close. Her lips parted, her scent intoxicating him. Uncertainty flickered in the depths of her eyes and he felt a savage rush of satisfaction. She had always had the upper hand, always beckoned and dismissed. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper. “And yet I think I was not wrong,” he said. “You have forever wanted what you cannot have. You came for me, Sal. And I stopped waiting for you a long time ago.”
Her chin trembled in his grasp and her eyes seemed fathomless, bluer than the desert sky. In the ten years of their acquaintance he had never forced so much as a kiss upon her rosy lips. And he had wanted to. By God he had wanted to. The temptation remained. He could almost taste her breath mingled with his own.
“I never asked you to wait for me,” she whispered. Her voice was so low, it was barely perceptible.
“How right you are.” His smile was predatory, unfaltering. “You didn’t ask and I didn’t wait. Goodbye Mrs Stornaway.”
Releasing her chin, he tossed a gold coin onto the counter. “Apologies for the interruption,” he said in fluent French. “I find I have pressing business elsewhere.”