After a record breaking sail from China, Alexi de Warenne’s moment of triumph quickly vanishes. At his welcoming party, his bewitching childhood friend Elysse O’Neill begins flirting with a shipmate, clearly punishing Alexi for his time at sea. But when Alexi finds Elysse desperately struggling in the man’s arms,, tragedy ensues. Within days, Alexi weds her to save her honor—and leaves her to forge a new life.
Elysse de Warenne rules the ton with her wit and grace, but the whispers of “abandoned bride” follow her ruthlessly. Elysse will never reveal the truth: that she hasn’t see her husband in six years—and they didn’t even consummate their marriage! When Alexi unexpectedly returns to England, Elysse will do whatever it takes to win his heart and claim her place at his side.
Bonus Content-The Prologue
Adare, Ireland, the summer of 1824
The sound of animated, adult conversation drifted from the mansion’s formal dining room, where the earl of Adare was having a supper party in celebration of his wife’s birthday. The children had gathered in an intimate salon across the great, vaulted entry hall from the dining room, and Elysse O’Neill, who was eleven years old, sat on the gold brocade sofa in her most formal supper dress, wishing she had been allowed to join the adults. Besides her, her best friend, Ariella de Warenne, also dressed up for the party, was engrossed in a book. Elysse could not understand her friend—she hated reading—and she would have been bored, if not for the boys.
They stood in a huddle on the other side of the salon, excitedly whispering to one another. Elysse stared at them, trying to eavesdrop, knowing they meant to cause trouble. And her stare was riveted on Alexi de Warenne, as he was always the leader of the pack.
She had met him four years ago, when he had first arrived in London with his father, having come from Jamaica Island, where he had been raised. She had snubbed him instantly upon being introduced, even if his dark, bronzed looks and swaggering air of confidence had instantly fascinated her. After all, he wasn’t a gentleman—he was a bastard, even if his mother was a Russian noblewoman—and she was a lady, so she meant to put him down. But he hadn’t been affected by the rejection; instead, he had proceeded to regale her with his stories of his life. Elysse had expected him to be backwards and gauche, but he was neither of those things. And she had quickly realized that she had never met any boy before who had lived through as much as he had. He had sailed across the world with his father, weathering hurricanes and monsoons, avoiding naval blockades and pirates, while carrying the world’s most precious cargoes! He had swam with dolphins, climbed the Himalayan Mountains, trekked jungles in Brazil! And he had even sailed a raft up a river in China—without his father! In fact, he had bragged that he could sail anything, anywhere—and she had believed him. Within an hour, she had decided that he was the most interesting boy she had ever met—not that she would ever let him know!
And she knew him so well now. Alexi was an adventurer like his seafaring father, and he could not stay on land for very long, or sit still, either. What were the boys up to? She realized that they were about to leave, as they were hurrying across the salon now, their goal the terrace doors.
Pushing her golden hair behind her ears, smoothing down her blue satin dress, Elysse slid to her feet. “Wait,’ she cried. She rushed over to them. “Where are you going?”
Alexi grinned at her. “Errol Castle.”
Her heart lurched. Those were ruins—and everyone knew the castle was haunted! “Are you mad?”
His blue eyes danced. “Don’t you want to come, Elysse? Don’t you want to see the old ghost who wanders the north tower in the light of the full moon?” Alexi leaned close. “They say he pines for his lady love. I know how you adore romance! She left him, you know, on a full moon--for another man. And so he killed himself, forever to walk the tower when the moon is full.” He laughed at her.
“Of course I know the story.” Her heart beat with alarm and fear now. She wasn’t brave like Alexi or her younger brother, Jack, or Ned, the earl’s heir, who stood with them. She had no desire to rush off into the night and meet the ghost.
"Coward,” Alexi said softly. He touched her chin. “I’ll protect you, you know.”
She jerked away. “And how will you do that? You are only a boy—and a mad boy, at that!”
His smile faded. “If I say I will protect you, I will.”
She believed he would do just that—even from a ghost. She hesitated, their gazes locked, not wanting to go with them. “Ladies don’t have to be brave, Alexi. They must only be graceful, politic, polite and beautiful.”
“Of course they do! My stepmother has sailed the world with my father—she has fought pirates at his side—she is brave and beautiful.” His eyes gleamed.
Ned stepped forward. “Leave her be, Alexi. She doesn’t want to come with us.”
Her younger brother Jack snickered at her.
And Ariella walked up to them, having actually put down her history book. “I’ll go.” Her blue eyes were wide and bright. “I would love to see the ghost!”
Alexi gave Elysse a daring look.
“Fine!” she cried, furious now for his having taunted her into agreeing to go with them. “But how will we get there?”
“It won’t take more than twenty minutes if we ride,’ Ned said. “The girls can ride double, behind us. Jack can ride by himself.”
This was a horrible idea and Elysse simply knew it, but everyone else was wide-eyed with excitement. Within moments, she was following the boys and Ariella across the terrace and to a paddock where they would steal their mounts. The boys often rode bareback, with just a bridle or even a halter, and now, she wished they were horrid horsemen—but they were not. The night was so dark and so quiet! But even worse, as she followed them across Adare’s great gardens, she glanced up at the gleaming moon. It was full and bright. She prayed they would not encounter any ghost that night.
A few minutes later everyone was astride, and they were trotting away from the house. Elysse held on hard to Alexi, angrier with him by the minute. He was an excellent horseman, but she was a terrible horsewoman, and now, she was afraid she would fall off.
“You are breaking my ribs,” he said, with laughter in his tone.
“I hate you,” she exclaimed.
“No, you don’t.”
They rode in silence the rest of the way, the moon having turned strangely yellow. Ahead, in its odd light, she saw the dark shadows of Errol Castle. It was huge.
It was so quiet now. All she could hear was the rhythmic clip clop of their horses’ hooves, and her own thundering heartbeat. And beneath her hands, she could feel Alexi breathing more rapidly—she thought she could feel his heart, racing more swiftly than it should. They passed through the piles of eerily white stones that had once been the outer walls of the barbican. She wanted to turn around and go home! And suddenly a wolf howled.
Alexi’s slim body stiffened. Elysse whispered nervously, “There are never wolfs this close to Adare.”
“It isn’t close.” They halted their horses by the gaping entrance in the stone walls of the castle, which had once been the front door. Through the shadows of the maze of stone walls inside, she could see the single lone standing tower on the other end of the ruins. She swallowed dryly. Her heart thundered.
Alexi whispered, “They say he carries a torch—the same torch he carried for his lost love.” He gave her his hand, twisting a bit to do so. “Slide down.”
Elysse did so, keeping her balance by holding his hand. Everyone dismounted. Ariella whispered, “We didn’t bring candles.”
“Yes, we did,” Alexi said proudly. He produced a candle from a breech pocket, and lit it with flint. “C’mon.” He swiftly started inside, clearly intent on leading the way.
Everyone followed. Her stomach churning with dread, Elysse balked. She did not want to go inside!
The group of children vanished into the darkness inside the ruined castle. Elysse bit her lip, breathing hard. She became aware of being absolutely alone in the dark night, outside of the ruins. And perhaps that was even worse.
Something moved behind her. She cried out, leaping in fright, only to realize that one of the grazing horses had bumped into her. Still, an owl hooted now. The sound was somehow ominous. She hated adventure! She liked balls! And being outside alone was worse than going inside, with everyone else. Elysse rushed after the other children.
But it was almost pitch black inside, and she could not see. She could hear their whispers, somewhere ahead, as she ran inside, trying to follow them. But the interior of the ruins was a stone maze. She hit a wall, panicked and turned, found a corner, and turned that too. And she tripped and fell.
She started to call out to Alexi, to tell him to wait, when she thought she saw a flash of bright light in the darkness on the other side of the castle where the tower was. She froze, crouching now by the wall, afraid to cry out. Had she just seen the light of the ghost’s torch?
Afraid to move or make a sound, afraid the ghost would find her, she became utterly still. And she realized she couldn’t hear her friends anymore! Where were they?
Panic overcame her. She saw the light again! Elysse rushed from the corner where she had been crouching, to flee the castle and the ghost. Instead, she found herself turning corner after corner, tripping and falling as she ran. She bumped her knees, skinned her hands. Why hadn’t she left the ruins already? Where was the entrance? She realized she had reached a dead end. What might have been the huge wall of a fireplace blocked her. She fell against the rough stone, trembling in fear, panting harshly, and that was when she heard the galloping horses.
They were leaving her?
She choked on a sob of fearful disbelief. She turned her back to the wall, and that was when she saw the ghost with his torch coming towards her. Fear paralyzed her.
“Elysse!” Alexi cried, hurrying forward.
She felt her knees buckle in absolute relief. It was Alexi carrying the candle, not the ghost with his torch, and she cried out, weeping. “Alexi! I thought you left me! I thought I’d be lost forever!” she sobbed.
He put the candle down and swept her into his arms. “It’s all right. You’re not lost. I’d never leave you. Didn’t I say I would always protect you?”
She held onto him, hard. “I didn’t think you’d find me—I heard the horses leaving!”
He held her shoulders now, so they could stare closely at one another. “Don’t cry. I’m here now. You heard my father, the earl and your father pursuing us. They are outside—and they are furious.” His gaze was searching. “How could you think that I wouldn’t find you?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered, trembling, her face wet with tears. But she had stopped crying.
“If you are lost, I will find you. If you are in danger, I will protect you,” he said seriously. “It’s what a gentleman does, Elysse.”
She inhaled. “Promise?”
He slowly smiled, and he brushed a tear from her face. “I promise.”
She finally smiled back at him. “I’m sorry I am not brave.”
“You are very brave, you just don’t know it.” And clearly, he believed his every word.
A moment later, he was leading her from the old, haunted castle, and out into the bright, moonlit night.