Elizabeth Tarryton was seventeen the night she finally understood that some mistakes could never be undone.
The fateful day started in a manner that was, regrettably, becoming familiar that summer of her first season in London.
“Lizzie, why am I reading about you in the newspaper again?” her uncle and guardian, Will Halifax, Viscount Grandville, asked as they breakfasted at his London town house.
Lizzie bit her lower lip. It was a lip that had had at least three odes written to it that summer. Five had been written to her red-gold hair, which was in truth the sort that Renaissance painters had lived to capture, and ten had been written to her deep blue eyes, which would have done credit to an angel but for the sparks of mischief that often danced in them.
“Um…” Lizzie wasn’t certain which incident might have made it into the paper. There had been the midnight serenading under the window of handsome young Captain McKinley last week, though Lizzie hadn’t been the only person involved in that. And then there was the little incident at the Cullivers’ party two nights before…
“What the devil can you have been thinking to jump into a fountain in an evening gown?” Will said gruffly. “And with two men present!”
The party, then.
“Oh, Lizzie.” Anna Halifax, the other occupant of the breakfast table, looked pained. A year before, when Lizzie had become Will’s ward, Anna had become first Lizzie’s governess and then Will’s wife. Anna and Will were like the older siblings Lizzie had never had, but they could be ridiculously concerned with propriety, considering Will was only thirty-three and Anna a mere twenty-four.
But Lizzie loved them dearly, and she knew they meant well—and just as important, she knew they’d never send her away. Being sent away was the one thing that worried her, but they’d promised she’d always have a home with them, and she trusted them. She had to, since she had no one else.
Will put down the paper and fixed her with a penetrating gaze. He was tall and darkly handsome, with brown hair and deep blue eyes, and his serious air lent him the right amount of gravitas to be a very fine viscount. But when he looked at her with what she privately called his “shrewd” look, she always wanted to squirm.
“I assure you the gown is perfectly fine,” she said, stalling for time.
“The gown is irrelevant beyond the fact that it was likely made of something flimsy and thus entirely transparent when wet.”
“But it didn’t matter,” she hurried to explain. “When Cicely dared me, I agreed on the condition that she and the gentlemen tie scarves over their eyes and turn around. So all that happened was that they heard a splash. I wrapped right up in a blanket, and nobody saw anything.”
Will groaned, and Anna pressed her lips together. Anna was an unusually beautiful woman, with black hair and sherry-colored eyes, and she had once been the center of an enormous scandal herself. But that had been different, because the scandal hadn’t been her fault.
“Lizzie,” she said, “we know you are an extremely intelligent young lady. Your reading tastes are sophisticated, and you probably know more about the issues of the day than any other young woman in London, let alone many of the gentlemen.”
“I’m two-thirds of the way through the complete works of Shakespeare,” Lizzie pointed out, hoping to distract them. She’d discovered a love of reading when Anna was her governess, and could not believe she’d once scorned it.
“But that just proves my point,” Anna said. “You’re smart, which is why we have so much trouble understanding why you keep doing these senselessly scandalous things. They may seem harmless to you, but they’re chipping away at your reputation, and they could make it hard for you to marry well.”
Lizzie didn’t understand herself why she needed to keep doing scandalous things, but she couldn’t seem to stop. She knew she should stop. The sentence uttered by her stepmother two years before should in itself have been enough to make Lizzie stop, but it was almost as if, despite everything that had happened, those words compelled her to misbehave more.
“Oh,” Lizzie said, waving a hand dismissively, “reputation. Surely the dullest word in the English language.”
She thought she heard the sound of two sets of teeth grinding. They wanted her to look to the future, but Lizzie had never liked to think about the future. Now was what interested her.
The truth was, Lizzie didn’t want to get married. She needed excitement, and the idea of settling down with one man for eternity made her want to weep. To Lizzie, nothing was as addictive as the company of men—plural. She simply adored them, and she had since she was a little girl.
“My darling Lizzie, who could deny you anything?” her beloved, widowed father would say with a fond smile whenever he looked up from writing his sermons to find Lizzie, at six or seven, scampering through his study in another new frock. He’d indulged her in whatever she wanted, perhaps partly to make up for the mother she’d never known. With a papa who was so wonderful, Lizzie had rarely minded not having a mother.
When the two of them moved to the island of Malta for his work, he’d said he was glad his little Lizzie could live somewhere free of the petty rules of English life, and he’d smiled as she’d run free over the island, charming the inhabitants as though it were her mission in life.
“She’s made friends with all the sailors in port and the shopkeepers,” their housekeeper informed the Reverend Mr. Tarryton when Lizzie was thirteen. “The men in town all call her the little angel. It ain’t genteel.”
“Nonsense,” Papa had said, curling his arm affectionately around Lizzie’s shoulders. “My Lizzie is special.”
“She’s a flirt,” the housekeeper had pronounced, and she’d promptly been sacked.
“Never mind about her,” Papa had said as they watched the woman march away from their house with her ugly black valise. “She’s just jealous because you’re going to break hearts someday.”
Lizzie had looked up at him, hoping he could see the love shining from her eyes. “I’d never break yours, Papa.”
“I hope not, poppet,” he’d said cheerfully and kissed the top of her head.
And she hadn’t; he’d been the one to break hers.
The day her unconventional papa married a very proper woman was a dark day for fifteen-year-old Lizzie, who soon realized his loving gaze was no longer fixed on her.
Seeking to fill the hollow space where once her father’s love had been, she’d taken to spending more time with the handsome young naval officers who sailed into Malta’s port. They listened to her as her father once had, and she’d loved making them smile—until her outraged stepmother had sealed her doom.
“Your daughter,” Lizzie’s stepmother, Marian, had said to Papa one night when Lizzie returned to find them waiting for her, “is a-good-for-nothing trollop, and you should be ashamed of the way you’ve indulged her.”
The words had cut, but what had hurt far more was that her father had just stood there as his new wife told him his selfish daughter was going to cost him his position, and that she must be sent away to a proper English school where she could learn how to behave.
And he’d sent her away.
Lizzie had arrived in England bitterly unhappy, and more unhappiness followed when she received a letter informing her that her father and stepmother and new baby brother had died of a fever.
It was through this tragic turn of events that she’d become Will’s ward. His steadying influence had brought her a measure of happiness, while his position in society offered her entrée into a glittering world of parties and balls and…gentlemen. Everywhere in London there were handsome, charming gentlemen.
How she loved their mischievous smiles. The little notes they slipped furtively to her as she stood talking with friends. The thrilling things they said to her while dancing. The endless stream of flowers they sent to Halifax House with her name on them.
The only thing she didn’t like about gentlemen was when they grew serious and wanted to propose. It was quite delightful to be sought after and do things like jumping into fountains, and she didn’t want any of it to end, which it surely would as soon as she married.
“I know you want to enjoy your season without the pressure of needing to find a husband,” Will said. “And certainly there is no need to rush into an engagement, never mind that we will want to be certain of any man you choose because your dowry will make you the object of fortune hunters—”
“Exactly!” Lizzie interrupted with cheerful relief. “So it’s best to take my time.”
“But,” Will continued firmly, “you must have a care about your reputation.”
“I will,” she said easily, and smiled. “Trust me.”
“We do trust you, Lizzie,” he said seriously, making her feel so warm inside. And though the memory of her stepmother’s sharp voice tried to tear down that secure feeling, Lizzie refused to listen. Will and Anna loved her; what could go wrong?
“Tommy’s back in Town,” Anna said after a bit.
“Oh, lovely.” Tommy was Will’s younger brother, although he was not a blood relation to Lizzie since she was related to Will through his first wife, her aunt Ginger. Tommy Halifax was perhaps Lizzie’s favorite gentleman of all. He was four years older, handsome enough to turn the head of every young lady in London, and as fond of fun as she was. They had wonderful talks about all kinds of things.
She would almost have said he was her closest friend, except that he wasn’t quite like her other friends. None of her girlfriends gave her the giddy feelings that Tommy sometimes did. But she never gave those feelings any thought, because Tommy was nearly family. She could flirt and laugh with him to her heart’s content without worrying that he’d propose.
“Is he coming to the Cattertons’ ball tonight?” She hadn’t seen him for a week, since he’d been off on some errand for Will at Longmount, one of the family estates.
“I believe so.”
So they would dance and have fun, just as they always did.
Tommy watched Lizzie from just inside the doorway to the Cattertons’ ballroom, having just arrived.
She was dancing with his cousin Andrew, and Tommy’s eyes followed her in her pink satin gown, which made him smile. Pink was her favorite color, and she nearly always wore it. Her gown was embroidered with gold flowers that set off the rich gold tones in her reddish hair, and a pink ribbon circled her neck, the single diamond dangling from it drawing his eyes to the milky loveliness of her bosom. She was so beautiful that she made everything around her seem like nothing but a blur.
God, he’d missed her, and it had only been a week since he’d last seen her.
Ever since Lizzie had come to live with his brother the year before, Tommy had found himself increasingly fascinated by her. How he felt about her now went far beyond attraction, but he’d kept his attentions chaste, not only because he respected her, but because Will would have had his head if he’d known the kinds of thoughts Tommy was having about her.
Tommy had kissed his fair share of willing women. Since meeting Lizzie the year before and falling under her spell, however, other women had ceased to hold any interest for him, and he was still a virgin. He knew that he wanted to be with Lizzie always.
But Lizzie was younger, and she’d had a hard time, having lost her family two years before. He knew that she’d been dreaming of her first season all during the last year, and she deserved her chance to be the belle of the ball, even if Tommy secretly wanted to keep her all to himself.
So he’d held back, and gone away when he couldn’t stand to watch the way other men’s eyes lit up when she was around.
But it was July now, and she’d been in Town since May. Having been presented at court, she was “out” and thus ready for any man who wished to win her. Though she might be in no hurry to find a husband, Tommy knew it was only a matter of time before some man snapped her up. Especially now, when nearly every fellow in London knew what a firecracker she was and would be wondering what she’d be like in bed.
Tommy ground his teeth. He’d heard about the fountain incident because one of the two men present was a friend of Andrew’s. Lizzie had a natural boldness—some might call it willfulness—and she was impetuous, qualities that were part of her charm. But this wasn’t the first such incident, and she was treading a thin line between being a little outrageous and becoming a true scandal.
Fortunately, he had the perfect solution to the little problem of Lizzie’s adorable outrageousness: he was going to marry her.
The idea still made him a bit light-headed, because he hadn’t thought to marry for years. He was not yet twenty-two, and if asked even the year before whether he might marry soon, he would have roared with laughter. But then he’d met Lizzie.
A twinge of conscience prodded him; he should probably have discussed his plans with Will first. But that was a conversation he didn’t want to have yet. And they were brothers—there was nothing but respect and affection between them, so Will had no reason to object to Tommy’s suitability.
The dance was over, and Andrew was leading Lizzie to where Will and Anna were talking. Before Lizzie could go off with anyone else, Tommy made his way to her, pleased that her face lit up when she saw him.
“There you are!” she said, coming close to give him a quick embrace. She smelled of that soft rose scent that was uniquely hers.
Andrew clapped Tommy on the back jovially, Anna embraced him, and Will asked after Longmount. After all the pleasantries had been gotten through, Tommy, his heart beginning to race, looked toward the open terrace doors, where few people seemed to have gone despite the warmth of the summer night. He held out an arm to Lizzie.
“Let’s go outside and cool off. You can tell me about everything I missed.”
She agreed and chattered happily as they walked, telling him about what had happened while he was away. When they stepped through the doors and onto the terrace, she looked up at the dark summer sky and sighed happily. Her capacity to be nearly always happy was one of the things he loved best about her.
“Isn’t it the most splendid night?” she said, and as he watched the starlight mingle with the gold lights in her hair, he was pierced by her beauty. He murmured his assent as he led her away from the manor and into the quiet, deserted space of the garden, which was lit with torches.
“It is a splendid night,” he said to the side of her face as she gazed at the stars. He took a deep breath. “But do you know what makes it truly splendid for me? Being here with you.”
There was a longish pause, then she turned to look at him. He’d never said something so personal to her, and he was dying inside waiting to know how she would take it.
“You must be in the mood to flirt tonight,” she said lightly.
“I’m not flirting. I’m serious.”
She frowned. “I’m not good at being serious, Tommy.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “You can be serious when you choose.”
“Er…thank you,” she said, sounding puzzled.
He’d never once kissed her, though he’d wanted to desperately, countless times. But now that he had such serious intentions toward her, and considering how well they knew each other—surely it wouldn’t be inappropriate now?
“Lizzie,” he said, huskiness creeping into his voice, “I want to kiss you. May I?”
She seemed surprised by his request, as though all the days and nights they’d spent talking and flirting hadn’t been leading in any particular direction. But there was a bond between them, built of affection and friendship. And attraction—he felt as certain of it as of his own breathing. They were meant to be together.
“Erhm.” And then she smiled. “Yes. I’d like that.” The words, breathy wisps that hinted at awakening emotions, inflamed him.
She tipped her head up and his heart thundered. When his lips finally—finally!—met hers, he felt it: she was going to be the love of his life.
Her mouth opened to him, and her tongue gently sought his, which gave him the unwelcome awareness that he wasn’t the first man she’d kissed. How many of the gentlemen of the ton had tasted her? he wondered with a surge of jealousy.
He pushed the thought away. It didn’t matter, because he meant to be the last.
A little whimper escaped her, and she hugged him closer as though she needed him. The awareness touched him in the most welcome way. She needed him, just as he needed her. He forced himself to break the kiss.
“Lizzie,” he murmured, “we can’t go on like this.”
“Like what?” She sounded adorably dazed.
He smiled a little. “Stealing kisses in the garden.”
“Who would know if we did?”
“Trust me, we can’t. I won’t survive the experience.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, dearest Lizzie, that you make my head spin.”
“Do I?” She laughed. “Will said the same thing yesterday when I told him I loved champagne.”
“You make my head spin in a different way.”
An inscrutable emotion flitted across her face. “Er…” She mumbled something that sounded like, “Me too.” But it might also have been something that ended in “you.”
Then she smiled brightly, as if they’d been talking about any old thing, and said, “Do you know, I should quite like a lemonade.”
And before he could say a word, she’d stepped away from him toward the ballroom.
He stood blinking for a moment at her abrupt departure. That kiss…it had been amazing, but it hadn’t been amazing just for him. He’d felt the thrill pulsing between them, heard the wonder in her voice.
He moved to the doorway. She’d found her way to Will and Anna, who were standing with the rest of his cousins near the edge of the ballroom. It occurred to Tommy that this was perfect: most of the people they loved best were right here. What better moment could there be to declare their love for each other?
Lizzie swept into the ballroom wondering if she had a silly smile on her face. But Tommy had just kissed her! And it had been a little wonderful.
He was a much better kisser than Lord Hewett, who’d stolen a kiss in an alcove at a house party last month, or young Mr. Fletcher, who’d quickly pressed his lips to hers under the mistletoe at a Christmas party. She wasn’t even going to count the lieutenant she’d kissed in the garden at the Rosewood School the year before, because that had really been about something besides kissing.
Her smile slipped a little as she thought of what Tommy had said afterward. He had made her head spin a little, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Talking made things too fixed, like they were all decided, when really she just wanted everything to be possible.
She hoped the kiss wasn’t going to make it impossible to go back to the way they’d always been, because she needed Tommy to be her friend.
She hoped… No, surely it wasn’t necessary to hope anything. Surely Tommy wasn’t going to be like the other gentlemen who’d wanted to be serious. This was Tommy, with whom she always laughed and teased with no consequences. Surely it had only been a kiss, even if it had been a little amazing. But she decided right then that they mustn’t do it again.
“And what have you been up to, Lizzie?” asked Will’s cousin, Louie Halifax, who only months before, on the shocking death of both his uncle and his cousin, had become the Earl of Gildenhall.
Lizzie thought “Gildenhall” was the perfect title for him, since, with his dark blond hair and extremely handsome looks, he seemed gilded. And since he’d been a commoner his entire life, he was not at all stuffy—which wasn’t to say that he didn’t have quite a bit of presence. He was certainly considered the catch of the season by all the mamas of the ton, even if despite being over thirty, he seemed in no hurry to be caught.
“Oh, nothing,” Lizzie said. “Are there any cakes left?” She strained to see beyond Louie’s shoulders.
He chuckled. “There were three left last I saw, unless Andrew ate them.”
His brother rolled his eyes. “Why would I do such an uncouth thing?”
Emerald, their younger sister, cocked her head. “Have you ever noticed how we say people are uncouth, but we never say they are ‘couth’?”
Emerald was the same age as Lizzie, and, with eyes as purely green as Tommy’s, perfectly named. Thanks to the dramatic reversal in her family’s fortunes, Emerald and her older sister Ruby were enjoying the kind of lavish season they could never have had with the burden of debt that had once pressed on them all.
“Or ‘ept,’” Ruby pointed out. “People are inept, but never ‘ept.’ Maybe we should make it a word. This could go down in history as the ‘ept’ season.”
“You can’t just sprinkle your conversation with made-up words and think everyone will start using them,” Andrew said.
“Can’t I?” Ruby said with the light of challenge in her eyes. Ruby Halifax might look haughty, but she had a competitive streak when it came to her brothers, and Lizzie found their squabbles entertaining.
From the moment she’d met them, Louie and his brothers and sisters had treated Lizzie like one of the family, and getting to know them had been one of the best parts of becoming Will’s ward.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned, and there was Tommy. He looked funny, but not in a humorous way. Something fizzed unpleasantly inside her.
“You left so suddenly, Lizzie. I had an important question to ask you.”
She’d heard that kind of thing before, and it wasn’t good. Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no. He wasn’t going to do the very thing she desperately didn’t want him of all men to do–he mustn’t.
She had to lighten the tone immediately and keep him from speaking serious words he would regret. But before she could speak, Will said, “What’s going on, Tommy?”
Oh please, she thought desperately, don’t let this be what it sounds like.
Tommy’s green eyes pinned her. He had black hair with a rogue blade of white slashing through at his forehead, and she’d seen more than one young lady swoon over his striking good looks. But to Lizzie he was simply Tommy. And he wasn’t supposed to say momentous things to her.
“I’m sure Tommy doesn’t have anything to say to me that can’t be said in front of all of you,” she said, giving him a smile meant to encourage him to keep things light.
But his face was serious.
“You’re right, Lizzie. The words I have to say, while especially for you, will mean something for all of the family. Because what I want to ask, dearest Lizzie,” he said, taking her hand and dropping fluidly to one knee as his eyes held hers and her stomach plummeted, “is if you will do me the very great honor of becoming my wife.”
All the breath rushed out of her. She could feel that Will had gone still next to her, and she heard Anna’s quick intake of breath and knew that the others were watching as well. Behind them, people were glancing curiously their way, doubtless drawn by the sight of Tommy Halifax on bended knee.
Panic rushed through her, making her light-headed and off-balance. She felt startled and also a little angry that he was ruining the friendship they’d shared. No—he was ruining everything, because how would his family ever look on her the same way again, now that he’d chosen her? Already excitement was beginning to brighten the beloved faces around her. She felt as if the parson’s noose were already slipping over her neck—and everything within her revolted against it.
Which was how, unable to stop herself in that terrible, awkward, panicking moment, she did the one thing she should never have done.
In the stunned moment that followed, she heard Ruby gasp and saw a terrible dark look come over Tommy’s face, changing it so she felt suddenly that she hardly knew him. He was still holding her hand as though frozen. She struggled to find something to say, but she couldn’t say yes, and she couldn’t disappoint him, so she said nothing.
His eyes turned into shards of sharp green glass that cut her, like a knife paring a rotten part from an apple. He dropped her hand and stood up, but now he would no longer look at her, and she understood with a terrible finality that nothing would ever be the same.
Without a word to her or anyone else, he turned and left the ball.
She wrote him two different letters that night and tore them both up before crawling into bed, desperately unhappy and confused and wishing she’d never even gone to the ball.
The failed proposal was the talk of Town, but Lizzie supposed Tommy didn’t care or, more accurately, didn’t notice, because three days later he boarded a ship for India.