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Chapter 1

London
April 1818

“It’s never going to work.”

The woman, who until six weeks ago had been known as Laura Dudley and who now could not say with certainty what name she claimed, stared at her reflection in the pier glass on the wall of her bedchamber. Or rather the bedchamber she occupied in the home of Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch. Until six weeks ago she had been employed as governess to their children. Now her position in the household was undefined. Like the rest of her life.

“Nonsense.” Suzanne Rannoch adjusted the puffed sleeves of Laura’s gown. “People aren’t in the habit of questioning Malcolm’s and my stories.”

“Most of your stories don’t involve amnesia.” Laura smiled at her friend in the mirror. “It’s all right. My situation was enough to tax even your abilities. I’m impressed that you could come up with anything at all. Impressed and grateful. But I can’t but think it might be best for me to avoid society.”

“You can’t avoid it when there’s a ball in our house.” Suzanne smoothed a fold of Laura’s overdress. “Besides it would be a crime for that dress not to be seen.”

Laura turned her gaze back to the looking glass. A stranger stared back at her. For four years she had dressed as a governess in sober, high-necked gowns of gray and dark blue. In the past six weeks she had borrowed some gowns from Suzanne and ordered a few new ones of her own, but nothing like the gown she wore now, the gown that Suzanne had insisted on taking her to order from a French modiste. French blue gauze fastened down the front with pearl clasps over a slip of silver satin. The pearls round her throat were her own, a gift from her father in her long ago days as the colonel’s daughter in India.  Her aqua marine earrings were a far more recent gift which had arrived a fortnight since in a plain box not sent through the regular post, with a cream colored card tucked inside signed simply R.

The memory brought warmth to Laura’s cheeks. And a much needed jolt of confidence. Which was probably why he had sent them.

She wondered if Suzanne knew where the earrings had come from. She wondered if Suzanne knew any number of things.

“I used to envy your gowns when you came into the nursery before you went out for the evening,” she confessed. “I wouldn’t have thought I would miss pretty clothes so much, and yet— But I also got used to dressing like a governess. To wearing clothes that blended in to the background.”

“The armor of a role.” Suzanne spoke with the easy assurance of a trained agent used to playing roles. “But your role has changed now.”

That was undeniable. The question was what her new role entailed.

The connecting door to the night nursery opened to admit Suzanne’s friend Lady Cordelia Davenport, an impossibly beautiful, impossibly stylish woman who had been born at the heart of the English beau monde. “More of their supper is going in their mouths than on the floor,” Cordelia reported. “Just. They made me promise to send ices up. And they want to see Laura once her toilet is finished.”

Cordelia’s two daughters were spending the night in the Rannoch nursery along with Laura’s daughter Emily and the Rannoch children Colin and Jessica. Cordelia paused on the threshold, gaze on the looking glass. She had gone with Laura and Suzanne to the modiste’s. “I knew that color would look splendid on you, Laura, but I didn’t realize quite— You’re going to have the ballroom at your feet.”

Laura turned from the mirror with a laugh. Cordelia wore a robe of red crêpe over white satin which set off her pale gold hair and laughed in the face of the gossip about her past. She and the dark-haired Suzanne, in coral lace over a matching silk slip, were perfect foils for each other. “Doing it much too brown, Lady Cordelia. With you and Suzanne, not to mention half the beauties in London, and the latest crop of débutântes—”

“Have you looked in the glass?” Cordelia asked. “Besides, you have all the fascination of mystery.”

“You mean people will be gawking at me because the story of my last four years sounds like something out of a lending library novel.”

“Nonsense—”

“I lost my memory after the carriage accident in India that killed my husband. My infant daughter was spirited away and I became a governess, only to recover my memories when my employers brought me to London.”

“I know.” Suzanne bent down to pick up Berowne the cat who was winding about her ankles, heedless of the delicate fabric of her gown. “You coped wonderfully in appalling circumstances for the past four years and the story makes you look more like a long suffering heroine in need of rescue than a woman who can take care of herself. I wouldn’t like it either. But—”

“But even if people don’t believe it, they’ll never guess the truth,” Cordelia said.

That, Laura acknowledged, was a good point. “You’re quite right,” she said. “I daresay it’s my own qualms about London society talking.”

“London society is certainly worthy of a qualm or two,” Cordelia said. “But you’ve got all of us to support you.”

Cordelia had been born an earl’s daughter but had faced social disgrace when her marriage nearly fell apart. Suzanne, half French, half Spanish, had been viewed by many as a foreign adventuress who had snagged a duke’s grandson. Even though cards of invitation to her parties were now sought after, there were still rumors.  “Which is a bit like having an army at my back,” Laura said. “I shouldn’t be missish.”

Cordelia put an arm round her. “Let’s go see your daughter.”

The day nursery, which had once been the heart of Laura’s world and where she still spent a large portion of her time, was bright with lamplight and children’s laughter. Emily looked up from the table. Her eyes went wide. “You look like a princess, Mummy.”

Laura laughed and went to kiss her daughter. Two months ago Laura hadn’t been sure she would ever see her daughter again. Six weeks ago when she brought Emily to the Rannoch house she’d wondered how her daughter would settle in, if she’d ever accept Laura as her mother, if she’d blame Laura for not finding her sooner. But  looking at the five children gathered round the nursery table, one would never guess that, unlike the Rannoch and Davenport children who had been nurtured from the cradle, Emily had spent the first four years of her life in an orphanage.

Colin Rannoch set down his cup of milk. “I’m glad you can go to parties, Laura. I always thought it was unfair.”

Suzanne ruffled her son’s hair and set Berowne down next to him as she went to pick up her daughter.

“Can we have some cakes with the ices?” Livia Davenport asked her mother.

“I’ll see what we can do.” Cordelia knelt between her daughters. Seventeen-month-old Jessica Rannoch now in Suzanne’s arms, squirmed round to nurse, which was not the best thing for Suzanne’s evening gown, though she was certainly used to it. Suzanne turned to Blanca, her maid and companion, who was presiding over the nursery meal. “Are you sure—”

“I’ll be quite all right,” Blanca said. “Unlike some, I really do only feel queasy in the mornings.”

Blanca had married Addison, Malcolm Rannoch’s valet, three months ago, and was expecting their first child. Suzanne squeezed Blanca’s shoulder while holding Jessica one-handed. “We’ll send up ices and cakes. And lemonade. And we’ll come up to kiss you goodnight. It should be an easy evening as these things go.”

Blanca snorted. “You always say that.”

Suzanne gave one of the dazzling smiles with which she always faced down risk. “And sometimes I’m right.”