When passion beings to boil, fame and fortune no longer seem to matter.
The Duke of Ravenscar intended to debut the most acclaimed ballerina in the civilized world to open his London theater. But when the ship arrives with an understudy, Drake is convinced the fortune he has invested will be forfeit. Until he sees the woman dance.
Britannia LeClair arrives in London excited to be performing the lead in La Sylphide. A foundling, she has had to work harder and with more determination than anyone in the corps. At last, her debut in London proves her worth despite her lowly birth. Until she meets the smoldering gaze of the Duke of Ravenscar.
Determined not to become anyone’s mistress, Britannia keeps the duke at arms-length while she sets to uncovering the mystery of her parentage. With only a miniature painting and a monogrammed handkerchief, her inquiries lead to a series of escalating accidents and threats.
When Drake realizes Britannia is in danger, he will move heaven and hell to protect her…if the strong-headed ballerina will let him. As they traverse through the mire of skullduggery and hidden shame, events unravel to endanger them both. Will the truth prove worth uncovering, or will it sever the deep love that has come to bond their very souls?
Read an Excerpt:
Britannia jolted upright, her heart racing. “Who’s there?”
The Duke of Ravenscar meandered from the abyss of black curtains and onto the stage, his gaze trained on her. Bria clasped her hands under her chin and scooted back as he neared. The man was nearly twice her size, black hair, startling eyes—vibrant blue like the color of a shallow sea. When he’d been speaking to Monsieur Travere on the parterre, he’d appeared poised and severe but now, looming so near, he was nothing short of dominating. “Parlez-vous anglais?” he asked, his French practiced, but not Parisian.
She stood her ground and lowered her arms. She must not show fear, not to the man who held her future in the palm of his hand. Bria had faced powerful men before and the only way to earn their respect was to project an air of confidence no matter how much her insides quaked. “I do, Your Grace. Latin as well.”
“Surprising for a…” His voice trailed off as he rubbed his neck and glanced away. Goodness he was imposing and, as everyone had noticed, well-formed.
“A ballerina?” she ventured, too aware of the poor opinion society harbored for artisans. Truth be told, the Paris Opera Ballet was infamous as being the “nation’s harem”. Nonetheless, what was true for some did not apply to all, and Bria’s love of her craft would not be sullied by falling victim to the wiles of men.
“Yes,” he agreed, “women in your profession are not known for their…ah…intellect.”
Her spine shot to rigid with a jolt. “I emphatically disagree with you on that point. To be proficient one must be shrewd and learn quickly.”
“Ah…perhaps that’s why you’re dancing the lead role. Forgive me if I was unduly coarse.” Dark, expressive eyebrows drew together. Heavens, his gaze disarmed her. “Your English is very good.”
“’Tis better than your French, if I may speak boldly, Your Grace.”
Full lips formed an “O” for a moment before he bowed his head. “Why not? And generally speaking, I do not believe I’ve ever met a dancer who was well-versed in Latin.”
“True. I am an oddity in many ways.” Bria’s stomach squeezed while she studied him—virile, confident, aloof. Commanding. What was he up to? Hadn’t he already left the theater? “Forgive me, but have you come to see Monsieur Travere? I’m afraid he has retired for the evening.”
“Actually, I was hoping to gain an audience with you, if I may.” The duke took a step forward, his cane tapping the floor.
“Me?” She gulped, eyeing the weapon before she shifted her gaze back to His Grace. He had the stature to wield the silver ball on his cane like a medieval flail—pillaging his way through England, winning the hearts of damsels who fell victim to his smoldering gaze. She could imagine him as a black knight riding an enormous stallion, leading his army in the crusades—
“Indeed,” he said, drawing Bria from her musings. He seemed not to notice any trepidation on her part. In fact, his lofty demeanor relaxed a little with a half-smile…well, at least she didn’t feel threatened—a tad muddled was more apt.
“Whilst I was walking in the rain,” he continued, “it came to me that I needed a meaty tidbit of information about you to dangle before society to include in Tuesday morning’s papers. Something to make them salivate.”
“I hardly see lords and ladies salivating.”
“Madam, we are about to open my new theater with ballet billeted to be the London debut of the most famous dancer in the civilized world and, as of tomorrow, all of society will find an understudy has come to perform in her place.” Those vibrant eyes grew dark, his countenance serious again. “The nobility to whom you refer are like dogs to a bone when it comes to gossip. And they will be gnashing their teeth to see me fail. I need something upon which to direct their attentions. What about your parentage? Are you the daughter of a great choreographer perchance?”
Her mouth dropped open. What should she say? Help! “I am not,” she squeaked.
“A famed composer, a renowned danseur?”
Bria shook her head, lead sinking to her toes. She couldn’t lie, but the truth might mean the end of her dreams.
“What about the offspring of a count or someone of note?” he continued, oblivious to her discomfort. “That must be it. Your English is far better than most Parisians I’ve met on my travels. Come now, you must give me something—something astounding.”
She backed away, shifting her gaze to her toes while her lowly birth hung on her neck with the weight of an anvil. “I’m sorry to disappoint you but my life to date has been rather dull. I was raised by an Englishwoman and her merchant husband in a provincial French village.”
“Raised, did you say?” His eyebrows slanted inward. “Who were your parents?”
Praying His Grace wouldn’t do something rash like cancel the premiere, Bria raised her chin and squared her shoulders. If she didn’t tell him, someone like Florrie would be all too happy to impart the brutal truth. “I never knew them. I thought Monsieur and Madame LeClair were my parents until their deaths, whereupon I discovered I am a foundling.”
“Foundling?” With a grumble, he chopped his cane through the air “That simply won’t do.”
Bria’s stomach chose this moment to growl loudly. Feeling a bit lightheaded, she started to slide toward the wings while Ravenscar paced and raked his fingers through his thick black hair. “Dash it, you could have at least been raised by an abbess…or a king from the Orient. That would have been exotic.”
Watching the silver ball on his makeshift weapon, she stole another step toward the exit. “Is the truth not scandalous enough?”
“It is not,” he said as if she’d just failed her exams. “I daresay, ‘Come see the new mystery ballerina, progeny of the Duke of Anjou,’ would be far more interesting than, ‘Come see the foundling who was hidden in provincial France by an English woman for fourteen years’.”
“When you put it that way, I think my past does sound mysterious and scandalous. In truth, I much prefer the latter to your conjuring of Anjou.”
His eyebrow shot up. “Opinionated are you not?”
“I’m told ’tis my most annoying trait.”
“Hmm. But I’d still like something more.” Stroking his chin, his dark gaze spilled all the way from her head to her toes. “Tell me about your education.”
“Maman, er, Madame LeClair was from a gentle family. She taught me everything from mathematics and languages to history and dance. When I entered the Paris Opera Ballet School, I continued my studies when I wasn’t dancing, of course.”
Ravenscar resumed his pacing. “Well, that’s about as exciting as reading The Mirror of the Graces.”
“The Mirror of the…?”
“Graces. It is a lady’s journal of correct form and, by my oath, the person who wrote it must have been a humorless crone.”
The man was insufferable. “I’m sorry to have disappointed you. I hope my dancing will be far more inspiring.” Bria curtsied. “If you will excuse me, Your Grace, I’m very tired.”
“Apologies.” He bowed, his action every bit as poised and controlled as a danseur. “I have been thoughtless. I shouldn’t have kept you.”
For a moment, she tried to think of a witty remark to prove her determination. After all, they both had a great deal riding on Tuesday’s debut. Wishing him well would sound trite. Telling him she would do her best might come across as pallid. What if she let them all down? What if the London crowd detested her?
“Good evening,” she managed before spinning on her heel. Bria hadn’t intended to swoon. But having expelled a great deal of energy throughout the day after enduring a bout of sea sickness on the paddle-steamer that ferried them from Calais, her fortitude wasn’t what it should have been. The stage spun. Unable to clear her vision, she raised the back of her hand to her forehead.
The next thing she knew, the Duke of Ravenscar swept her into his arms. Surrounded by warmth, the power in his embrace imparted succor she’d seldom experienced. Kindness, human touch, tenderness—things she’d once taken for granted but hadn’t been blessed with in years. Turning her head toward him, she inhaled, swathed in the scent of fresh linen and exotic spice. Too overcome to push away, her eyes fluttered closed as she took one more blissful sniff of heaven.