1816, Northumberland, England
In their small village just outside of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Adelaide had always been known as the prettier of the Bursnell twins, while Alice was regarded as the smarter—or razor-tongued, as the more uncharitable of her set were wont to say. Which was ridiculous, Alice often thought indignantly but never said out loud, because both sisters were smart.
They were also identical. Same short, slender frame. Same eyes so dark they might as well be black, and same inky hair that framed a startlingly pale face. But—when Alice was honest with herself, which she nearly always was—Adelaide’s sweet nature added an extra twinkle to her eyes and a pleasing curve to her lips that threw the balance in her favor.
Everyone loved Adelaide. Alice, most of all.
So, when Adelaide told Alice that she was in a “spot of trouble,” Alice had wrapped her arms around her sister, held her tight, and murmured, “Oh, Adelaide. It will all be fine.”
And Alice had believed it. As the daughter of Lord Bursnell, Viscount Westsea, the sweet and lovely Adelaide had a sizable fortune. Most men would thank the stars of heaven for the good fortune of being trapped into marriage with such a charming lady. Surely, the man responsible for the “trouble” would stand up for her.
But no man had appeared to claim the lady, and no amount of threats or entreaties could make the lady name the man.
“You will bring ruin and shame on the family,” Lady Westsea had argued. “Think of poor Alice. Who will marry her now? She’s twenty!”
That had elicited a low growl from Alice. Adelaide was also twenty, after all, but no one ever feared that she would remain unmarried. Which was why the whole matter was so disconcerting. One expected Alice to get into mischief of one sort or another. But Adelaide? It was utterly unthinkable.
“You will never be allowed in society again,” Westsea had bellowed.
Adelaide had merely pressed her lips tightly, shaken her head, and clung to the locket around her neck. The locket was identical to the one Alice wore—a two-inch oval of solid silver, engraved with the letter A and adorned with a single diamond, their birthstone. Each contained a picture of the other sister. This was their idea of a joke, of course. When they explained why it was so funny to wear a picture of someone who looked exactly like oneself but was most certainly not oneself, all they got was bemused looks.
When Adelaide began increasing, Westsea shipped his daughter to Our Lady of Good Tidings in France, with instructions to give the baby to an orphanage and for Adelaide to join the nunnery. The Bursnell family were members of the Church of England, but when one was ruined, it hardly mattered if one was Catholic.
Neither Adelaide nor the babe had survived the birth.
Lord and Lady Westsea had hidden the breakables—Alice, as the more tempestuous twin, never shied away from a scene—and informed Alice of Adelaide’s demise as gently as they could.
Indeed, Alice would have obliged them in creating a scene, as she had a year earlier when her late fiancé had not returned from Waterloo, if only she could summon the requisite amount of passion. But she’d felt…nothing.
She’d wordlessly gotten to her feet, climbed the stairs to her bedroom, and shut the door.
When the door opened one month later, Alice was changed. Into what, she hardly knew, but she was certainly no longer herself. An irrevocable line had been drawn, separating the before from the after.
Before, she was a pair. She had always been a pair, for even longer than she had truly been a person at all. Before, she was a Bursnell Twin. She was Alice, of Alice-and-Adelaide. She had never been Just Alice.
After, she was Just Alice.
Just Alice was an empty shell.
It was Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Who was she, if not a reaction to Adelaide? She was nothing.
While Alice of Alice-and-Adelaide was high-spirited and energetic and could often be found dragging her sister into one scrape or another, Just Alice spent her time sitting quietly, her eyes tracing words that her mind never bothered to comprehend. Sometimes she remembered to turn the page, other times the book remained suspended, unmoving, for hours on end.
Then one day, Adelaide’s effects arrived from across the Channel. Three plain dresses, a handful of letters from Alice, and her silver locket. The dresses were given to a maid, the letters burned, and the locket given to Alice.
Alice trailed her fingertip over the cool metal, tracing the curlicue on the letter A. For just a moment, she pretended that she wasn’t Alice. She was Adelaide, abandoned to a nunnery, alone except for the nuns and other fallen ladies. How scared she must have been, facing the end of her confinement without her mother or her sister! How often had she opened the locket, seeking solace in the beloved face within?
Alice instinctively flicked the locket open.
She stared harder.
Red-gold hair. Piercing blue eyes. A cleft in a strong chin.
It was not her face.
Queasiness shot through her stomach. It was the first thing she had felt in two months. It wasn’t pleasant, by any means, but it was something.
She pried the miniature from its casing. It was a simple oil, but surprisingly detailed and lifelike for something so small. The materials were high quality. She turned it over. The initials NE were scratched into the wood. She turned it around again.
Who could it be, but Adelaide’s lover?
Alice became aware of a curious sensation traveling through her limbs, filling all the spaces that had been a dark void since her sister’s passing. It felt like poison, but Alice cared naught. At least she felt.
She knew he had money.
She knew his initials.
She knew his face.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
She would find the villain.
And she would destroy him.
He saw her before she saw him.
Standing at the top of the staircase, Lord Nathaniel Eastwood, Viscount Abingdon, had an excellent view of the Duke of Wessex’s ballroom and all its occupants—none of whom were half so beguiling as the stranger scowling into her lemonade. A huge crystal chandelier whirled dizzily overhead, casting a kaleidoscope of rainbows over the dark hue of her hair. It was impossible not to notice her. She was wearing a dress of rich red velvet, a vivid contrast to the other young maidens who were clothed in white and pale pastels.
She was, he told himself grimly, exactly the type of woman to put arsenic in one’s porridge. It was, unfortunately, a topic with which he was intimately familiar.
And yet, he couldn’t tear his eyes away.
Nathaniel hated balls. He hated London, too. Yet here he was, subjected to both horrors at the very same time, an unhappy circumstance he blamed entirely on Wessex. Every season it was the same thing. Wessex would lure Nathaniel from his peaceful estate in Hampshire with the promise of Something Important, which usually turned out to be a scrape involving a woman, who was, more often than not, married. Sometimes it was not even that and Wessex was merely bored.
Like this time.
All eyes were on them now. Nathaniel began to sweat. He felt their stares, and while he could not hear their whispers, he could easily imagine what they said. There is the charming duke and his awkward friend. Or perhaps they paid him no notice at all. People rarely did when he was standing next to the illustrious Wessex.
Nathaniel glanced at the lady in red. Then he looked away again.
He began to plot his escape. Surely, he could leave after half an hour? That would not be too rude, would it? By that point, Wessex would be occupied with his next victim and would barely notice his presence, anyway. Perhaps he would get a lemonade at the table where the lady in red was standing and then walk the perimeter of the room, saying hello to anyone necessary and leaving the rest alone. Then it would be safe to leave.
He would not dance, of course. Nathaniel never danced.
Again, he looked to the lady in red. Again, he looked away.
“She is something, is she not?” Wessex murmured by his side.
Wessex gave him a speaking glance. It had clearly not escaped his friend’s notice just which female had captured Nathaniel’s attention. “The lady in red.” He eyed the girl speculatively. “A bit sullen, perhaps, but that just adds to her charm. One gets the instinctive feeling that she would not bore a man with chatter of bonnets. If her dance card is not yet full, it will be when I’m through with her.” He spoke with the cocky assurance of a man whose advances were never spurned.
“Hmm.” Nathaniel grunted noncommittally. Lord Sebastien Sinclair, Duke of Wessex, was a rake. One couldn’t expect a rake to ignore a specimen like the lady in red. Why should Nathaniel care if Wessex danced one, three, or twenty dances with the girl? He did not care. But he did want to give his friend a small push down the marble staircase—not enough to kill him, but enough to leave him bruised and unable to dance. Call it an occupational hazard. A rake had to expect the occasional push down a stairway.
Nathaniel was not a rake. He was too brusque to be charming and too unfashionable to be dashing. And as he was already in peril of being pushed down any number of staircases, he felt no need to add to the danger with scorned ladies and cuckolded husbands.
Which was why he had no intention of making the acquaintance of the lady in red. She could take her silky hair and her lovely throat and that adorable scowl and go to—
Their eyes met.