It was another perfect spring day. Emmeline blinked rapidly as she gazed out the dining room window at the gardens already bathing in soft spring sunlight. The jasmine along the arbour had burst to life with tiny snowy white flowers, and the roses were blooming with abandon. She should be full of joy. But the arrival of spring always reminded her of what had happened in this season all those years ago …
“Emmeline,” boomed her mother sitting across from her at the breakfast table. “You are miles away.”
Emmeline sighed, turning to her mother. Mrs Vaughan looked peevish as always as if her daughter’s inattention offended her deeply. It seemed she could never make her mother happy anymore. She was always gazing at Emmeline with a slightly puzzled air as if her daughter had let her down in some way that she could not quite put her finger on.
“I am sorry, Mama,” she replied quietly. “I was just admiring the blossoms in the garden, that is all …”
“We were discussing the Mathesons’ garden party,” said her mother, frowning. “A conversation that you should be eager to attend to, my girl.” She took a deep breath causing her bosom to shake slightly as she picked up her teacup. “Mrs Matheson took the liberty of showing me the guest list. There shall be many eligible gentlemen at the party, Emmeline.”
“Will there?” asked Emmeline in a strained voice. She forced a smile onto her face. “How perfectly lovely.” She glanced down at her plate, hoping that her insincerity was not as obvious to her mother as it was to her.
“Alice Matheson is promising a game of croquet in the gardens, Emme,” piped up her sister Olivia, glancing at her anxiously. “You know how much you enjoy it! I think it shall make the party perfectly splendid. I am sure we shall have a wonderful time.”
Emmeline glanced at her sister, smiling warmly. Dear Olivia. What would she do without her? Her younger sister was always jumping in to rescue her when the talk of eligible gentlemen and suitors became overwhelming. As it always did. Her parents – particularly her mother – seemed to think of nothing else where she was concerned.
Her smile faded a little. She had enjoyed croquet once upon a time. It had been one of her favourite games in the world. But she had not played it in years and could not quite recall the fervour she had felt about it now. But then it was like that with just about everything she had once enjoyed in life. All of her passions. For croquet and landscape painting and playing the harp … oh, there were so many that she could not even recall them all anymore.
Her hand tightened around her teacup. She blinked back sudden tears. What had happened to the woman she once was? It was as if she remembered another girl entirely. A girl that she missed with all her heart. A girl who was a stranger to her now.
She bit her lip desperately, trying to keep the tears at bay. Desolately she picked up a piece of toast smeared with marmalade, nibbling on it for a moment. It tasted like cardboard in her mouth.
“It is settled, then,” said her mother, her eyes sharp. “You shall attend the Mathesons’ garden party, Emmeline. Olivia is going and shall keep you company. I shall not put up with any last-minute excuses, my girl.”
“As you wish, Mama,” she said in a small voice.
But in her head, she was already lining up one of the many excuses she now used to get out of social engagements. From migraines to sprains, from dizzy spells to fatigue, she had used many over the years. A fact that her mother was fully aware of and didn’t even pretend to believe any longer.
Olivia took a deep breath. “I shall be by your side, Emme,” she said encouragingly. “I shall not leave you for a moment if that is what you want.”
Emmeline felt a stab of guilt. Olivia was her baby sister. Three years younger than she. And it was Olivia who was acting like a protective mother hen, vowing not to leave her side. It wasn’t fair on her sister. It wasn’t fair at all.
She felt another sharp stab of guilt. Olivia was stunningly beautiful. She had golden curls that looked like spun gossamer and huge blue eyes the colour of forget me nots. She was poised and elegant and charming. Emmeline knew that her sister was very popular on the social circuit and wasn’t surprised in the least. Any gentleman worth his salt would be proud to have Miss Olivia Vaughan on his arm. Olivia didn’t need a reclusive mouse of an older sister dragging her down, monopolising her time and attention.
“Thank you, dearest,” she said, attempting to smile. “You are kindness personified as always.”
Olivia waved her hand dismissively in the air, but Emmeline could see she was touched. “It is just another party, Emme,” she said. “It is no sacrifice for me to attend to you during it if it makes you feel more comfortable.” She took a deep breath. “I want you to have fun again! It seems an age since I have heard you laugh like you used to.” Her voice trailed away uncertainly.
Emmeline rose to her feet, throwing her napkin on the table with a slightly trembling hand. “You have my gratitude, Liv,” she said slowly. “Could I be excused, Mama? I feel a slight headache coming on.”
Her mother pursed her lips. “Of course, Emmeline.” She paused. “But remember I shall take no such excuse on the day of the party. Do we understand each other?”
“Perfectly,” replied Emmeline.
Quickly she headed to the door. She needed to get out of the room before the tears that were threatening finally fell. Her heart felt as heavy as a stone.
She was a disappointment to her parents. She was a burden on her younger sister. It seemed there was nothing she could do to change any of it.
As soon as she was out of the room, she leaned against the wall, letting the tears fall. It seemed an age since she had heard herself laugh as well. So long that she could no longer even remember what it felt like to do it.
That afternoon she walked through the gardens, stopping to smell the roses from time to time. It felt good to be out in the open air, away from the stifling confines of the house and the occupants within it. It was the only place where she felt truly free anymore.
She rounded a corner, stopping abruptly. She had assumed that she would be alone, but she could see her grandmother’s slightly hunched figure in the near distance, leaning on her walking stick. Grandmama regularly dropped into Lambeth House, her family’s country home in rural Essex, but at odd times. One never knew when one would encounter her.
Hastily she turned around, but it was too late. Her grandmother had seen her.
“Emmeline!” she beckoned, waving one of her heavily jewelled veined hands in the air. “Come and walk with me, child.”
Emmeline took a deep breath, turning back. She plastered a smile onto her face.
“Grandmama,” she said when she was close enough to be heard. “I did not know you were here, let alone walking in the gardens.”
The old lady smiled, a little mysteriously. “I like to surprise,” she said. “Tell me … what do you think of this particular rose? The bloom is spectacular, but the fragrance a little overblown, in my opinion.”
They chatted about the rose bush for a few moments before her grandmother turned sharp eyes upon her. “Your mother tells me that you are as reluctant as always to attend social functions, my girl. I am not shy to tell you she is despairing of you, Emmeline.”
Emmeline’s heart twisted. “I do not wish to be a disappointment to Mama.”
“Then do your duty, child,” said the old lady sharply. “It is not hard. You just dress yourself up and parade around at parties and balls. All of us have had to do it, at one time or another.” Her eyes narrowed. “You are seven and twenty now, Emmeline. An age when the bloom of youth is fast fading, and the danger of becoming an old maid is upon you. You must make an effort, child, or you will end up haunting this house for the rest of your days.”
Emmeline reared back, stung to the bone. Her grandmother was always so blunt.
“You do want a family of your own, do you not?” continued the old lady, gazing at her closely. “A husband and children? Because they shall not fall into your lap, child. It takes effort to procure a good match.”
Emmeline reddened. “Of course, I would like a family of my own,” she said in a trembling voice. “Do you think I wish to be a burden on my parents forevermore?” She stared out at the verdant green hills in the distance. “I want my own home, Grandmama. What lady does not desire such a thing?”
“Then you must pull yourself together, child,” said her grandmother firmly. “I do not know what happened to change you, Emmeline. You never used to be like this.” She frowned slightly. “Once, you were almost as happy and carefree as your younger sister. You happily attended social engagements. I know that your temperament is naturally more reserved than Olivia’s, but it never seemed to matter as much as it does now.”
She stared pointedly at Emmeline, waiting for an answer.
“Olivia has always been more vivacious than I,” said Emmeline, her voice trembling. “She has always been happier in social situations.” She paused as the tremble intensified, sweeping over her like a wave. “We are like chalk and cheese in that way, Grandmama. I am like a weed next to one of these roses.”
“Humbug,” said her grandmother crisply. “I do not tolerate self-pity, my girl. Yes, your sister is beautiful and vivacious and has her pick of suitors. But you are no wilting weed either. You are handsome, Emmeline, and charming.” Her eyes narrowed. “No, something did happen to change you. What was it?”
Emmeline stared helplessly at her grandmother. A painful lump thickened in her throat.
No one had asked her that question before in such a bald way. Oh, they had all skirted around it from time to time. Olivia was always pressing her but never asked outright. Her father would often grunt that she seemed a shadow of her former self. Mama would purse her lips and wonder aloud where her daughter had vanished to. But they never pressed her so doggedly.
She kept gazing at the old lady, noting that she seemed frailer than ever; she was more stooped, and her hair had thinned so much lately that Emmeline could almost see her skull through it. Grandmama was fearless and still as sharp as a tack, but she was also aged. She didn’t need a granddaughter weeping and wailing about her problems at her time of life. It would not be fair to burden her in such a way.
“There is nothing, Grandmama,” she said, in as steady a voice as she could muster. “What could there be? It is just hard for me to attend engagements, that is all.”
Her grandmother kept staring at her. Emmeline felt herself redden more, but she forced herself to keep the old lady’s gaze. She didn’t drop her eyes for a second.
“Very well,” sighed the old lady eventually. “It is obvious you do not wish to speak to me of it, my child.” She took a deep breath. “But remember that time heals all wounds, and we must be our own saviours, Emmeline. I am old enough to know that.”
Emmeline nodded, blinking back the tears again.
She could never speak of it to anyone. Not to Grandmama, nor Mama or Papa, or even to dear sweet Olivia, who was her closest friend in this whole world. They would be shocked and appalled and would never understand.
She took a deep breath. Besides, Grandmama was wrong. She had been waiting a long time now, and it was all still as fresh as yesterday.
Time didn’t heal all wounds. Not at all.
Emmeline felt her stomach lurch as she and her sister entered the drawing room of the Mathesons’ grand house. People were mingling here as well as spilling out of the open french style doors into the gardens. She could see a marquee had been set up there, its white roof billowing like a ship’s sails in the wind.
Her mouth suddenly went dry. It was always like this whenever she attended a social function. At least it was always like this these days. She could still vaguely recall a time when it had not been quite so painful – when she had not suffered social anxiety quite as badly. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
“How are you, dearest?” whispered Olivia, staring at her closely, her blue eyes clouded with concern. “You look a little pale.”
Emmeline took a deep breath. “I shall survive,” she replied. “I promised Mama I would attend this party, and I shall see it through.”
Olivia smiled slightly. “You make it sound as if you are going into battle, Emme,” she said. “No one here is out to hurt you. We are here just to have fun.” She hesitated. “It will be good for you. You must be driven to distraction staying at home all the time.”
Emmeline smiled at her sister. Olivia could never understand that home was a haven for her. She knew that her sister started climbing the walls after merely three days at Lambeth House with no social engagements. But then she and her sister were very different people.
Her gaze softened as she kept gazing at her. Olivia looked radiant this afternoon in her crisp white muslin gown, easily the most beautiful lady in the room. Her heart swelled with pride. Her beloved little sister, who was always the life and soul of the party, charming anyone within her radius. Olivia truly was like the sun.
She gazed down at her own gown. A cream muslin equally as pretty as her sister’s, but somehow it just didn’t look the same. She could never be as beautiful and charming as Liv, nor did she wish to be. She was quite content being in the shadows of her sister’s sun. It meant that no one paid her any particular attention – which was just the way she liked it.
She took another deep breath as her heart started to race. Two ladies were approaching them, bearing down upon them like hawks pursuing a rabbit. At least that was how it felt to Emmeline.
She squared her shoulders, trying to calm herself. It was only Miss Edwina Carpenter and Miss Harriet Green, after all, ladies with who she was well acquainted, even if she had never been the best of friends with them.
“Why it is Emmeline,” cried Harriet, swooping on her and taking her arm. “I declare I almost did not recognise you, my dear. It has been a veritable age since we have seen you in public!”
“Indeed, it has,” said Edwina, staring at her sharply, almost avidly. “My dear mama declared that she thought you an invalid now, as it has been so long since you have been out in the district.” She paused, her eyes raking over Emmeline. “But I said that dear Olivia would have told us if there was something so drastic.”
Olivia’s face darkened imperceptibly. “I have always told you both that Emmeline is quite well,” she said quickly. “You both know that as well as I do, ladies.”
There was an awkward pause. Emmeline felt a fierce blush colour her face. It felt as if it were aflame. Dear Olivia. Her sister was just trying to deflect the barbs of the ladies. She was trying to protect her as always. Shame washed over her. It wasn’t Olivia’s job to defend her; she was the elder sister, after all.
It hadn’t always been this way. How had it come to this?
For a moment, she was tempted to turn around and run out of the room. She wanted to climb into the carriage and simply sit there, waiting until her sister was ready to leave the party. But she knew that would cause more talk. It would be fuel for the gossips, and she simply could not do it to her family any longer.
“I am perfectly well; I thank you,” she said, lifting her chin, as she gazed at the ladies. She turned to her sister. “Shall we go outside, Olivia? I must admit the thought of a game of croquet is rather tempting.”
Emmeline picked up her teacup, staring over the gardens. There were still people playing croquet but not as many as there had been; most were drifting inside as the sun cast a long shadow over the lawn. Her heart lurched with relief. It was almost time to leave.
She had tried very hard, indeed. Two games of croquet that she had not enjoyed in the slightest, but it had pleased Olivia to see her playing. She had joined groups and attempted to chat with various ladies and gentlemen. At first, it had felt like the words were being dragged out of her mouth, but it had got easier.
Her sister had dragged her from one group to the next, introducing her to various gentlemen. She knew very well what Olivia was up to but had endured it. The gentlemen were all perfectly respectable and charming. Some of them were even handsome. But all she felt as she attempted to talk with them was a deep weariness at the bottom of her soul.
She put down the teacup, casting her eyes around for Olivia. Her sister seemed to have disappeared inside. Determinedly she set off. Hopefully, they could say goodbye to their hosts and be gone within the half-hour.
She was almost inside when she saw a gentleman move deliberately towards her. She hesitated. She didn’t want to speak to him at all, but it was obvious that she had seen him approaching her, and it would be rude to ignore him. She took a deep breath, forcing a smile onto her face.
“Miss Vaughan,” he said, bowing slightly. “I have been waiting to introduce myself to you all afternoon, but alas, you always seemed occupied.”
Emmeline tried not to let her surprise at his words show in her face. How did he even know who she was? She studied him covertly for a moment.
He was obviously rather well to do, judging by the cut of his clothing. The gentleman was in his early thirties, perhaps, of medium height, with light brown hair receding slightly over his head. When he smiled at her, his pale blue eyes crinkled at the edges.
“Of course, sir,” she said, curtseying. “I would be most pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“My name is Lewis Hardy,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I have only recently moved into the district from further north.”
Emmeline smiled. “And pray, where in the north are you from, sir?”
“Lincolnshire,” he said. “My family have rather substantial land holdings there, as well as shares in a foreign company, which is the reason for my visit here.” He paused. “I am staying with my aunt while I conduct my business. Perhaps you have heard of her. Mrs Desmond of Charing Street?”
Emmeline nodded. She did indeed know Mrs Desmond, who resided in Farnstoke, one of the local villages. A widow whose husband had died many years prior and who owned quite a lot of property in town. Mrs Desmond was also known to be a voracious gossip with her nose in everyone’s business.
“And how long shall you be in the area, Mr Hardy?” asked Emmeline, inching towards the door. She was suddenly so weary of making polite conversation that she did not know how she would endure another minute of it.
“An indeterminate length of time.” He smiled. “I must admit I am rather enjoying being so far away from home.” He paused. “I might extend my stay for even longer. Everyone who I have met has been so very kind and hospitable.”
“You have been to many social engagements in the area then?”
He nodded. “Indeed! I have barely had a quiet night in with my aunt since I arrived.” He smiled. “But this is the first time I have seen you, Miss Vaughan. I would have remembered your face. I am sure of it.”
Emmeline blushed slightly. “That is very kind of you to say, Mr Hardy. I am afraid that I am not very social. In fact, this is the first engagement I have attended in a very long time.”
“That is a pity,” he replied slowly, his eyes lingering on her face. “A beautiful lady such as yourself languishing away at home. Why, it is a travesty, Miss Vaughan.”
Emmeline’s eyes widened with alarm. Was this gentleman flirting with her? It had been so long since any such thing had happened to her; she simply did not recognise it for a moment. But then his pale blue eyes started to twinkle, and there could be no doubt.
Her blush deepened as pure panic overcame her. This was so very awkward. He seemed like a perfectly nice enough gentleman, but she had no interest in him in the slightest. She kept edging towards the doorway, seeking her escape as her eyes darted from side to side, seeking her sister. Where was Olivia?
She took a deep breath, trying to deflect him from his intent. “You say you are in the district on business, Mr Hardy?”
He nodded. “Indeed. Have you heard of the East India Company by any chance? It operates on the Indian subcontinent.”
She nodded, although she had only ever heard of it in passing. But the last thing she wanted was to draw him into a lengthy explanation about his business.
“My family has a business associate who lives in this area,” he continued. “Lord Richard Montagu. Perhaps you know him?”
Emmeline was starting to feel a bit faint as beads of perspiration broke out on her forehead. She had not heard mention of the aged Lord Montagu in a very, very long time. So long ago that it almost seemed as if he had been a character from a book.
She nodded slightly. She suddenly wanted to be sick. But Mr Lewis Hardy pressed on, not noticing at all.
“He is rather infirm now,” he said slowly. “He has been struggling to keep up in our meetings. But I have been assured that his son and his nephew, who is staying in the area as well, will take over the meetings from now on. A charming fellow, so they say …” He frowned, rubbing his chin. “I have forgotten his name. Benedict, perhaps? Yes, that is it. Lord Benedict Montagu.”
Emmeline swayed slightly. The whole world started to spin.
“I say,” said Mr Hardy, jumping toward her in alarm. “Are you quite alright, Miss Vaughan? You look rather faint.”
She couldn’t answer. It was as if she was falling down a dark tunnel. She heard his voice, but it was as if he spoke to her from very far away.
Suddenly, Olivia was beside her. Her sister’s blue eyes were wide with shock. Gently, she took Emmeline’s arm, guiding her back into the house. Emmeline could see people staring at them, but she was beyond caring. She dug her fingernails into her arm to keep herself from falling to the floor.
Her worst fears had come true. He was back. After all this time.
“A Lord’s Flaming Return” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Ever since she was abandoned by her secret love three years ago, Miss Emmeline Vaughan has been struggling to nurse her broken heart. Even though she is constantly encouraged by her family to socialize and find a proper match, the deep wounds of the past are very hard to heal. Her life will be turned upside down once again when her old love returns and old feelings and a burning desire are resurfaced. As if this wasn’t enough, she is in danger of being cast out by her parents if they were ever to learn of her secret and fiery love affair that are part of her past. Could Emmeline overcome all the intimidating obstacles and trust the alluring man after all he has done? Or will she be utterly unable to succumb to his seductive gaze again?
Heartbroken by his painful past, Lord Benedict Montagu is only back in the district to attend to business matters with his uncle and repair his strained relationship with his cousin. Despite believing he will never be able to love again, he is proved wrong when past longings are stirred the minute he reencounters Emily. He is however unable to forgive himself for abandoning the irresistible woman out in the cold and tries to convince himself that she will be better off away from him. Nevertheless, his flaming passion is hard to tame and he inevitably tries to find a way to make up for his mistakes and win her heart and body back. Will Benedict dare to claim the only woman who has set every part of his being on fire? Or will restrain himself from the smoldering passion that has grown between them?
When fate brings them together for yet another time, Emmeline and Benedict cannot stop dreaming of sinful and intimate moments with each other. However, someone has vowed to tear them apart, resorting to blackmail to get exactly what they want- the destruction of this burning affair. Could Emmeline save her reputation while it’s still hanging by a thread? In the end, will she and Benedict conquer the demons of their past and surrender to their overwhelmingly tempting lust?
“A Lord’s Flaming Return” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.