After Forever Excerpt

Book 4 > A Whisper of Scandal

London, England
The Marquess and Marchioness of Davenport’s Home
The Year of Our Lord 1819

“Julianna, darling, as your dearest friend you really should have told me you only agreed to come to my ball tonight to show the ton that even though your mourning period may be over, you will forever be in mourning,” said Lady Audrey Davenport as she eyed Lady Barrows with a smirk.

“That was not my intention,” Julianna said on a sigh.

“Excellent. Then will you please smile and cease your frowning,” Audrey chirped. She grabbed Julianna’s arm and tugged her through the crowd like a marriage-minded mama who’d just caught sight of the Season’s most eligible bachelor.

“Quit dragging me, Audrey,” Julianna cried out, nearly colliding with one of the other guests who was trying to maneuver around the crowded ballroom. Julianna smiled apologetically at the aged lady she had almost knocked down. “I’m very sorry.”

The older woman patted Julianna’s hand. “Don’t fret, dear. I know who you are, and we are all very sorry for you. It’s good to finally see you back in Society.”

The pity in the woman’s voice and eyes made Julianna’s throat constrict. She could not speak.

“She appreciates your concern for her welfare, Lady Giles,” Audrey said while tugging Julianna away and once again plowing ahead at a rapid pace.

After a moment, Julianna managed to shove her sadness back down and said, “Slow down, Audrey.”

“If I slow down, I’m afraid I will miss Lord Dentington. See him over by the terrace with Trent? Lord Dentington has the cagey look of a man about to escape.” Audrey weaved them at a dangerous pace through the throngs of guests as they chattered all about the chandelier-lit ballroom.

Julianna gazed toward the terrace and located Audrey’s husband, Lord Davenport, or Trent as Audrey lovingly referred to him, or Sin as she had confessed she sometimes called him when she wished to be scandalous.

Audrey turned a corner and offered an airy wave to a top-heavy, feather-capped woman motioning both hands at her.

“You really should stop and speak with your guests,” Julianna said, not in the mood at all to talk to Audrey’s husband again tonight, who with his dark-blond hair reminded Julianna of Henry. Henry’s locks had been almost the exact same color. Her throat immediately ached with the need to cry, but she swallowed hard and forced a smile.

“I’ll talk to every one of them as soon as I’ve accomplished my goal,” Audrey replied, charging ahead while passing Sally, the Duchess of Primwitty, who was making a beeline toward them.

Julianna helplessly waved back as she was tugged away from her other dearest friend. “If you continue to rush toward Lord Dentington this way, your husband will likely become jealous.”

“Don’t be silly,” Audrey giggled. “I’m rushing toward Lord Dentington for you. I think you two would suit. He’s a widower, just half a year shy of how long you’ve been a widow. If anyone will understand your pain, he should.”

Julianna jerked backward, and they came to a shuddering halt. Thank goodness they were close to a column. She placed her hand there as the room spun. She was going to faint. The pinch of it was it had nothing whatsoever to do with the horrid stays she had relented to wearing when Sally had insisted they show her figure in the best light.

Julianna had been tempted to argue that the stays made it hard to breathe—nor did she give a whit if anyone cared for her figure—but all the fight she had once possessed, that had driven Henry to distraction, had died when her husband had. So she had on stays. Yet, breathing had not been that bad. She took a ragged breath to make sure. No, it was not the stays that were the problem; it was her broken heart. The back of her throat burned and tears blurred her vision.

“I don’t want anyone to understand,” Julianna said, blinking away the tears that slid in warm twin trails down her cheeks, despite her best effort to hold them back. Botheration. All this time in mourning and she had not once showed the depths of her misery to her friends. So why here and now?

“Oh, dearest!” Audrey cried and hugged Julianna to her, while somehow maneuvering them behind a potted plant. “I’m a nitwit. I’m so sorry. I thought…”

Audrey’s words trailed off as her gaze wandered down the length of Julianna’s gown. As Audrey’s face flushed, the heat of Julianna’s embarrassment at what her friend must be thinking about the revealing gown singed her cheeks. She had not wanted to wear the emerald gown. It was far too lively for how she felt. Her choice had been a black gown, which suited her mood perfectly. But for some reason it had not been ready from the seamstress, and Sally had offered Julianna one of her gowns. Her friend did so love to flaunt her assets, and Julianna, unfortunately, had larger assets. She’d practically stuffed her bosom into Sally’s gown, which was why she’d placed the fichu over the deep plunge. Julianna pressed a hand to her warm, bare skin where the fichu had been. She gazed toward the floor for the missing material, but in this ballroom finding it was going to be hopeless.

“My gown wasn’t ready,” she murmured. “This is Sally’s.”

Audrey patted Julianna’s arm. “That explains it. I mistakenly thought your appearance meant you had changed your mind and were ready to search for another husband.”

Julianna shook her head. “It’s not been long enough.”

Audrey gently wiped Julianna’s tears away. “Dearest, it’s been a year and a half.”

Julianna tensed. Had it really been a year and a half since she had sat and watched Henry in the garden tending to the roses, and then sat and watched him die? She clenched her teeth to muffle the sob that wanted to escape and gave a vicious, yet futile, yank upward on the silk gown. “You may as well understand my position, Audrey. I never want to marry again.”

“I understand it perfectly,” a male voice said behind her.

Julianna whirled around and stared in horror at Lord Dentington. Luckily, the man was far too busy gazing at her chest to notice her gaping mouth. She snapped it shut while glaring at Audrey, who had the decency to appear sorry. It was obvious the man standing before her was Audrey’s doing.

Finally, he managed to tear his gaze away from Julianna’s bosom and Audrey made a quick introduction between them. Lord Dentington smiled. “Lady Davenport tells me you are an excellent dancer. Would you do me the honor, if your card is not full?”

“I feel a bit light-headed, Lord Dentington. I will have to pass tonight, as I think I’m going to go find a quiet spot to sit and rest for a minute. If you both will excuse me,” she said, eyeing the shadowy corridor that led to the library. If she could reach the library unseen, she could hide there all night until the ball was over.

Audrey patted her hand. “Of course, dearest. Do you want me to accompany you?”

“No, no, I prefer to sit alone to allow the ache to subside,” she replied and hurried away.

After a moment of meandering along, she glanced over her shoulder, relieved to see Audrey speaking with her husband, and without Lord Dentington, who was probably finding another woman’s bosom to ogle.

The deafening aristocratic nonsensical chatter lessened the minute she turned the corner toward the hall. She passed a large open window and took a deep breath of the warm April air as she peered into the night. On the terrace, a woman stood with a man, her head thrown back in laughter. Julianna sagged. She had been one of those women once, with an easy smile on her lips and a sparkle in her eyes, laughing gaily with her friends and dancing with her darling husband. Her stomach clenched. Coming tonight had been a dreadful mistake. Julianna did not want to find a new husband. If she were to be totally honest with herself—and since she was the only one who could hear her thoughts she could be truthful—most days she wished she would not wake up. Ever again. But then she would think of her daughter.

“Lady Barrows,” a deep voice whispered, causing warm breath to tickle the back of her ear.

Flinching, she turned to find Lord Dentington standing so close that she could smell the scent of the soap he used. “Whatever are you doing?” she demanded, her heart thudding in her ears.

“Following you,” he whispered and grinned. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

Julianna frowned. “No. Why would you think that?”

“I clearly heard you say that you never want to marry again. And then you made a point to say you wanted to be alone somewhere quiet. Naturally, since you are a widow, I thought—”

“Don’t say another word,” she commanded, surprised by the force of her voice. His gaze, on her bosom once again, told her exactly what he had thought. Her stomach turned. “I don’t care for a dalliance now or ever.” She swirled on her heel and rushed down the corridor. As she turned another corner, she crashed into Lord Summerton, who had once been good friends with Henry. Sagging with relief, she smiled at him.

“Lord Summerton, I’m so glad to see you.” At least he would not try to seduce her.

“Are you?” he said, in a low voice that made her instantly wary, but not half as guarded as the way his gaze had left her eyes and was fixed on her chest.

“Shall we stroll to the library and peruse Davenport’s collection of books together?” Lord Summerton asked.

“I prefer to peruse with gentlemen who can look me in the face,” she said through clenched teeth. Lord Summerton snapped his gaze to her, and she gave him a very satisfying glare. “If you would be so kind as to send my brother-in-law to me in the library, I’ve developed a megrim and wish to leave,” she said in the coldest tone she could manage.

He jerked his head in agreement before turning away. Once he had disappeared around the corner, she rushed to the shadowy library, and closing the door, sagged against it. A lone candle burned in the room, reminding her suddenly of the single candle that had been lit by Henry’s bed the night he succumbed to consumption. A shiver passed over her and she hugged herself, but her coldness continued to grow. Her teeth began to chatter, so she forced herself to trudge to the balcony doors that were ajar. Stepping into the warm air, she pulled the doors almost all the way closed behind her. Her chill subsided a bit, but the draft inside of her would be there forever. It had started the moment Henry had taken his last breath. Likely, she’d feel icy inside until the day she took her last breath and joined him.

Below her in the gardens, a laughing couple darted down a path. Julianna gripped the banister, her chest aching so that every breath she took burned her throat. She would have gladly followed Henry down a dark garden path for a scandalous liaison if Henry had ever asked, but he had been so honorable and considerate he would have never risked her reputation like that. She would never find a man like Henry again, which was good because she didn’t want to. He’d been her everything, her life’s breath. If it wasn’t for Liza—immediately her daughter’s sweet smile came to mind—Julianna wouldn’t even get out of bed day after day.

She gazed up at the stars, hopelessly wondering if Henry could see her as Liza had asked tonight while Julianna had been tucking her in. Liza’s other question, why was she sad all the time, had sparked an unwanted realization. Just getting out of bed was not enough anymore. Her inability to be happy was affecting her daughter, and now that she really thought about it, that realization was probably the real reason she had come tonight. She had wanted to try for Liza’s sake.

But this world was no longer the world she had known, the one she had lived so comfortably in on Henry’s arm. She was a stranger in a land she had once loved. How was she ever going to be remotely happy again when people looked at her either with pity or with lust? She no longer knew her place. She was not a wife, and she did not want to be the type of widow the gentlemen were clearly expecting. Yet nor could she simply go along day to day with the older set. They were worse at trying to match-make than anyone.

She tried to look up into the sky and picture where her future might go, but all she saw was blackness, as if the stars had suddenly faded. Behind her, voices startled her. She moved toward the balcony doors, expecting to see her brother-in-law and his wife looking for her in the room, yet as she set her hand to the edge of the door to open it, she blinked and stilled. A woman stood with her back to Julianna, which would have been perfectly acceptable, but the woman had her dress slipped off her shoulders and was working to pull it down the rest of the way.

Julianna sucked in a breath, and crouching low so as not to be seen, tried not to listen, but really, how could she help it? Carefully, she peered between the crack in the doors. Was there any way for her to escape without being seen? She pressed her fist to her mouth to smother her moan. There was no hope of escape. The woman stood in the middle of the room and a man faced her.

With the woman’s back to her and the man’s face cast in shadows she couldn’t see either of them properly, thank goodness. She’d rather not know them from this moment if she ever came face-to-face with them. There would be no way to hide her embarrassment, and then she would turn splotchy and red all over her neck.

“Pull up your dress, Lavinia,” the man growled.

Julianna stared at him. His voice, deep and commanding, held an underlying note of steel. There was something about his accent that was off, different, not as polished as she was used to but rather rough under the surface. Though, he certainly was dressed like a gentleman, from all she could tell.

“Don’t be a bore, Nash,” the woman purred, pulling her dress lower so that it was crumpled at her waist.

Julianna really needed to look away, but she was finding it hard to believe that the woman seemed to have nothing under her gown. No chemise. No stays. Nothing but skin. A streak of envy for the comfort such shocking behavior must afford the woman gripped Julianna.

The man advanced in two long strides and tugged the woman’s dress over her arms and onto her shoulders before Julianna could blink. She could just make out his fists clenched at his sides.

“I didn’t come in here to service you,” he snapped.

Lavinia dropped to her knees, her hands gripping the man around his waist. “Then let me service you. I remember exactly what sort of wicked things get you in the proper mood, Nash,” she purred, and then chuckled.

Julianna’s pulse sped at the scene in front of her. She and Henry had always had passion between them, but Henry had been insistent that there were some things proper English ladies did not do. He had told her he wanted to protect her, never shock her, and she had appreciated that, even if there was the tiniest part of her that had wondered what Henry’s hands on her body doing wicked things might have felt like. She had heard enough of Audrey’s outrageous recounts of her and her husband’s bedroom adventures to know what some of those wicked things involved. Or at least she thought she knew.

The gentleman, Nash, yanked the woman to her feet, a clear note of disgust emanating from his throat. Gripping Lavinia’s arms, he said, “If you remember that, then I’m damn certain you remember that particular mood of mine is precisely what produced our daughter, whom you have not seen since the day you birthed her.”

Julianna frowned. That made no sense. How could Lavinia not have seen her own daughter? Even if these two had partaken in a scandalous liaison, surely the woman had kept her daughter and raised her.

Lavinia wrenched her arms out of Nash’s hands but faced him still. “I liked you much better when you were a street fighter trying to claw your way out of the gutter. You’re no fun now.”

“And I liked you better before I knew who you really are. Before I realized you could have our babe and then want to throw her away like yesterday’s trash.”

Lavinia shrugged. “We’ve been through this. What do you want me to do? Bring the child home to my husband and say, Look dear? Look at the bastard daughter from my affair with the man I slept with the year before marrying you? I won’t risk his ire. He’s on his death bed and I’m going to stay in his good graces and make sure I get every farthing I deserve. I was very clear to you that if you went and took her from the orphan house I left her in I would never play mother to her.”

“For God’s sake, Lavinia, I grew up in that place, and even if I hadn’t had the misfortune there was no way I was going to leave my child there. I’m fairly certain it’s the gateway to hell.”

“This conversation is the gateway to hell,” Lavinia said, her boredom evident in her tone.

Julianna’s heart thudded so hard each beat pulsed at her neck. There was something dreadfully wrong with this woman, any woman, who could have a child and then pretend the child did not exist. And the man, Nash… Her gaze lingered on him. He stood with his legs spread—powerful legs by the way his trousers clung to the contour of his muscles—and his hands still fisted as if he was just barely holding his anger in check. She understood completely.

“If this is why you asked me to meet you in here, I’m going,” Lavinia snarled. “Stanhope’s brother is here and will be looking for me, and I’m not going to risk being found here with the likes of you for a mere lecture.”

Julianna bit her lip. What a dreadful thing to say, and she knew the words had stung Nash because he’d flinched. So this man was not of the ton apparently?

Lavinia started to march past the man, but he clasped her arm and stopped her flight. “Please come see Maggie. I know your heart will soften if you will just meet her. She’s lovely and spirited and—”

“Oh, do quit!” Lavinia snapped. “You sound sappy, and I much prefer to think of you as the rough and dangerous man who takes what he wants. Remember him? The one who took me on the steps of his home, and on the grass, and in the water?”

The water? Julianna tried to picture how that would work and nearly laughed aloud.

Lavinia pressed her lips to Nash’s cheek. “When that man returns send me a note. I’ll meet you anywhere you desire, darling, as long as it’s for pleasure and not talk of your brat daughter. I’ll be counting the days,” she purred.

“Then you’ll be counting for the rest of you life,” he replied.

“Brava, darling. There’s the Nash that I desire. I knew the forceful boxer I met had to be lingering behind the exterior of the gentleman you are now trying to portray. Don’t be too smug, though. Soon Stanhope will die, and I’ll be free of the old duke. I predict you’ll be in my bed within a fortnight. And I’ll welcome you, darling; truly, you are the best lover I ever had.”

“That’s quite a compliment since I know you’ve spread your legs for many.”

Lavinia threw back her head and laughed, the sound devoid of joy or happiness but full of spite. The hairs on Julianna’s neck stood on end. The hideous woman raised her hand and ran a fingernail down Nash’s chest stopping just above the edge of his trousers.

“I don’t remember you being cruel, but I like it. Maybe we would suit in marriage after all. Remember when you asked me, darling?”

“I remember,” he said flatly. “You told me you’d never marry a mere gaming hell owner, because I was utterly beneath the life you had planned.”

“You sound like a wounded child.”

“And you sound just as I remember—heartless. I want to thank you, actually.”

“What for?” she demanded, her voice sharp with irritation.

Julianna leaned so far forward to hear his answer that suddenly her balance was off and she teetered forward. Her heart jumped to her throat, as she caught herself with her palms and pushed herself backward. As Nash spoke, all her attention was riveted on him.

“Your turning me down was the nicest thing you ever did for me. It left me free to find a true lady to raise my daughter.”

“Is that what you’re doing here? Looking for a lady to marry?” Lavinia’s high-pitched snicker filled the room. “Darling, no respectable lady of the ton would want to marry you. Bed you, yes. Marry you, never.”

Julianna couldn’t take it anymore. This Lavinia woman was cruel and needed to be put in her place. Jumping up, Julianna shoved the balcony doors open and barreled into the room. Nash and Lavinia turned her way at the exact same moment. Lavinia’s eyes rounded, and Nash’s dark eyebrows raised high.

Julianna’s legs trembled, but she stepped forward and narrowed her gaze on the lady who, now that they were face-to-face, Julianna was sure she did not know.

“I’d marry him, if I were looking,” Julianna said, glad her voice came out steady. “In fact, he’s exactly the sort of gentleman any highly regarded lady of the ton would wish to have as a husband, which probably explains why you declined his offer.”

“Who are you?” Lavinia spat.

For a second, Julianna thought of lying, but really, she had done nothing wrong and she had no reason to fear the woman was going to say anything about this encounter to anyone. “I am Lady Barrows,” Julianna replied, her heart lurching with the words that brought her thoughts sharply back to Henry. Shoving his memory away for the moment, she set her hands on her hips and gazed down her nose at the woman who was pretty in a cold, statuesque way. “I’m not inclined to gossip, and I’ll likely forget you the second you’re gone, rather like yesterday’s trash, unless you continue to stand here glaring at me. Then, darling”—she purposely used the endearment the woman had twisted into something ugly when addressing this man—“I will commit your face to memory and be sure to learn who you are, so I can tell everyone of your rather colorful past. I’m sure your poor, dying, husband would be all ears.”

The woman’s eyes grew stony. “My, my you’re certainly the curious cat disguised as a plain mouse. Careful, dear. I think like a fox, and if you persist in getting in my way, I won’t hesitate to destroy you.”

Before Julianna could respond, the woman snarled at Nash, “This isn’t over,” then turned on her heel and stormed out of the room.

As the door slammed shut, Julianna’s breath caught in her chest and her knees almost gave. She locked them in place and pinched the bridge of her nose, fighting back the roaring in her ears. A large, warm hand settled on her arm.

Turning toward Nash, she peered up at him and their gazes locked. Her breath caught again, but this time in her throat with a sort of wonderment. He had the most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen; the color, greyish blue, reminded her of the sky during a summer storm, dark on the surface with the promise of something light underneath, if only the clouds would part.

“We haven’t been properly introduced,” he said in a voice rich with sensuality.

Sensuality? The most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen?

Julianna froze and tried to pull Henry’s face to memory. For a horrifying moment, she couldn’t. And then he was in her mind, and she gulped in a breath.

“I’m Nash Wolverton, and if you’re looking for a husband, I’d be happy to oblige,” he said with a wink.

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