Authors: Nina Rowan
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For my family—then, now, and always
I owe my gratitude to Kimberly Witherspoon and Nathaniel Jacks of InkWell Management. Thank you, Lauren Plude of Forever Romance/Grand Central Publishing, for your sharp editorial guidance and enthusiasm, and to Selina McLemore for launching the Daring Hearts series with me. Franzeca Drouin, thank you a million times over for your friendship, your support, and your inestimable research knowledge and skills. I am so fortunate to have you in my corner. Thank you always to my father, for never once wavering in your support and belief in me, and to my perceptive, fun, and savvy writing partners Rachel Berens-VanHeest, Bobbi Dumas, and Melody Marshall. Finally, I am so grateful to all the readers who have read and enjoyed the Daring Hearts books.
e was leaving. Again.
Lady Talia Hall watched from her bedroom window as James Forester, Baron Castleford, crossed the gardens of Floreston Manor. Waning sunlight gleamed on his dark brown hair. He moved with a long, easy stride, his body relaxed, at home in the glow of late afternoon with bluebells, daffodils, and lilacs blooming at his feet.
A faint hope lit within Talia at the sight of him. Though she was pained by her recent discovery that this summer James would board a ship destined for Australia, she allowed a deep-rooted, precious dream to surface. When he returned to London—
he returned—he would do so with a warm smile lighting his eyes, full to bursting with tales of stormy seas, snapping crocodiles, dangerous floods, and mosquito-laden treks along muddy river passages.
And perhaps upon his return he would look at Talia and finally see the woman she had become. A rich, powerful love would surge through his heart, startling him with its intensity. In that wondrous moment, he would dare to unleash the desire he had suppressed for so many years. He would take her in his arms and kiss her with tumultuous passion…
James climbed the terrace steps and disappeared from Talia’s view.
Very likely not.
Talia sighed as her daydream broke apart, as it always did. She pressed a hand to her aching chest. When James returned to London six months from now…or a year…or God forbid, two years…he would embrace Talia with brotherly affection, inquire after her health, her friends, her charity work, and then he would saunter off to a ball or a dinner party. There he would enchant the numerous guests, particularly the ladies, with more riveting accounts of his adventures.
He would swoop in and out of Talia’s life for a few weeks or a few months, entirely ignorant of her abiding love for him. And then he would leave again, unless Talia dared to tempt the fates into creating a different outcome.
dared to create a different outcome. Ever since her mother had left and her parents divorced three years ago, Talia had struggled with her place in the world. Her four older brothers had all gone about their lives, while Talia stayed at home with her father and tried to hide from the lingering gossip.
The only person she didn’t want to hide from was James. He had always been there as a childhood friend, for as far back as Talia could remember, and he was one of the few people who had stood beside the Hall family during the scandal. Now that the matter had settled a bit, Talia’s father and eldest brother, Alexander, were pressing the subject of her marriage, since she was now twenty-three years of age.
And if Talia didn’t do something before James left London again, Alexander would push forward like an ox with his ridiculous conviction that Lord Fulton would be an excellent match for her. And if he managed to get their father’s support for the idea, then James would truly be out of Talia’s reach forever.
Her stomach tightened with nerves. She turned to study her reflection in the mirror. Her dress flowed over sweeping petticoats that emphasized the tapered curve of her waist. The rich green crepe de chine matched her eyes and contrasted well with her brown hair and pale skin.
The bodice, however, dipped around her bare shoulders and showed an expanse of skin that Talia was unaccustomed to revealing. She had always worn modest evening dress, particularly after her mother’s scandalous affair had prompted gossips to doubt Talia’s own virtue.
She pulled a silk shawl around her shoulders to conceal the swell of her bosom, which seemed rather prominent due to the heart-shaped neckline. She took a breath and gave her reflection a firm nod.
While she had questioned the wisdom of her bold approach numerous times since learning of James’s impending departure, the time was long overdue for him to see her as a desirable woman rather than the Hall brothers’ little sister.
She glanced at the clock. She and her father, two of her brothers, and James had come to Floreston Manor for a few days’ visit, and this was the first time everyone except Talia and James were out of the house. She had to do this before her father and Sebastian came in from their fishing trip, and before Alexander and his sweetheart, Lydia, returned from their excursion to the village.
Talia couldn’t help smiling at the thought of Alexander, her rigid eldest brother, who had so obviously been conquered by Lydia and still didn’t know it yet.
Talia was determined to have the same effect on James Forester, except he would most certainly
she had conquered him. That was the only thing that might convince him not to leave again.
Spurred by the thought that this was her last chance to be alone with him, as they were all returning to London tomorrow, she hurried downstairs. The housekeeper emerged from the drawing room and gave Talia a pleasant smile.
“Lord Castleford missed his tea, my lady, so I left a fresh pot and a platter of cakes.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Danvers.”
The older woman nodded and puffed toward the kitchen. Talia stepped into the drawing room. Her breath caught in her throat.
James stood beside the fire, glancing through a sheaf of papers. The crackling flames cast his tall, muscular figure in brilliant illumination. His overlong brown hair curled around his ears and the top of his collar, the dark strands etched in reddish gold light.
Shadows danced over the masculine planes of his features, the slanting cheekbones, sharp nose, and thick-lashed eyes that Talia saw in both her waking and sleeping dreams.
“Hello, poppet.” James glanced up and smiled, the warmth in his eyes mitigating the hard edges of his jaw.
“Hello, James.” His name tasted like a delicacy in her mouth, his gaze alone sparking pleasure beneath her heart.
But the nickname, which Talia had always enjoyed due to its affectionate undercurrent, now reminded her all too forcefully of his indulgent view of her.
“You’ve passed a pleasant afternoon, I take it?” James asked.
His deep voice rolled over her like sunlight. “Yes…yes, thank you, James.”
Talia moved to sit on the sofa, ensuring her shawl sufficiently covered her bare skin. She poured the tea, then watched as James walked to put the papers on the desk.
She would never tire of looking at him. She had memorized all his unconscious movements over the years—the way he rubbed the back of his neck, folded his long body into a chair, curved his hand around a teacup or glass of brandy.
A restless energy radiated from him, evident in his utter lack of idleness. He paced when he spoke, tapped his fingers on his knee when he was seated. He smiled often, laughed, and made broad gestures with his hands as if words alone could not express everything he wanted to say.
No one except Talia knew all the subtleties of how James Forester moved and behaved. She was certain of that.
“Lists of the expedition members and transportation plans,” he explained, nodding toward the papers.
Unease knotted through Talia. James sat across from her and studied the tea tray, which was filled with a variety of breads, cakes, muffins, and tarts.
“You’re leaving in the summer then?” Talia asked, handing him a cup of tea.
“Next month, actually.”
“N-next month? So soon?”
He reached for a slice of plum cake. “I thought we’d be delayed because we had to secure a new medical officer, but we’ve found one and managed to book passage on board the
We leave from Southampton in mid-June.”
“Alexander said you were going to New South Wales.” It sounded like the end of the world.
“Yes. The Royal Geographical Society requested a survey of the territory, including several rivers. I submitted a plan of exploration in November, but didn’t receive word until recently that the governor had sanctioned it. So preparations have been a bit hasty.”
“I thought you’d planned a trip to Asia in the fall.”
“It hasn’t been funded yet, so this one takes precedence. With any luck, we’ll finish the survey within a few months and be able to journey directly to the Malay Peninsula.”
Talia’s heart sank at the thought of having to worry about him traveling. Every time he left England’s shores, she worked herself into a frenzy thinking he would end up dead, or that he would decide never to come home, or that he would return and announce that he’d married a beautiful princess from some exotic land.
Thus far, saints be praised, none of those lamentable circumstances had occurred, but both time and luck were running short for both of them. Even if James returned from this particular expedition whole and hale, Talia could wait no longer.
“Well.” She forced a smile to her lips and summoned every bit of courage she possessed. “Won’t you need to return to London soon? What about your estate?”
A frown creased his forehead. “The estate manager handles things in my absence.”
“Yes, but he can’t be in charge forever, James. Surely you’re expected to carry out your duties and even to…to marry soon.”
“There’s a distant cousin somewhere, I’m certain, who can take over the estate when the time comes.” James shrugged and picked up a wedge of pound cake. “As long as there’s an heir, the lineage is secure regardless of what happens to me.”
Talia curled her fingers around her shawl, disliking his indifferent view of his own future. She’d often thought of little else in recent years, clinging to the hope that James’s future would inevitably merge with her own. Then the scandal of her mother’s affair had sparked rumors about Talia’s reputation, and she’d managed to avoid all horrible speculations by remaining within the circle of her trusted friends rather than venturing into society.
James was one of the few people who had never wavered in his loyalty to her family. His loyalty to
And now Talia knew she could not hide much longer. Not if her eldest brother had anything to say about it. Not if James was leaving again. She tightened her grip on the shawl and took a breath.
“Speaking of marriage,” she said, “did you know that Alexander, the big loon, indicated to Lord Fulton that I would be amenable to a marriage proposal?”
She expected James to react with horror—Fulton, after all, was a man twice her age and as rotund as a hogshead. Though Talia had told her brother in no uncertain terms that she would never marry Fulton, she hadn’t confessed that she would never marry
except James Forester.
Since girlhood, she had known James would one day be her husband. He just needed her to finally tell him that, since he was clearly too mutton-headed to figure it out on his own.
“Fulton, eh?” James frowned, a flash of darkness on his handsome face. “Pity North couldn’t set his sights higher on your behalf.”
“It isn’t his decision, in any case.” Talia set her cup down with a restless movement and walked to the hearth. Her stomach roiled with anxiety as she turned back to face him. “And I’ve set my own sights for marriage much higher.”
“Have you now, poppet?”
“Yes.” She twisted the fringe of her shawl. “My choice is what matters.”
“Indeed.” James reached for the plate of tea cakes yet again.
For heaven’s sake.
If she were a tart, he would fall to one knee and declare his undying love.
Talia glanced at the clock. Now. She had to do this
“I…I’ve a confession to make.” She gripped her shawl close to her throat. The heat of the fire filled the air around her. A bead of perspiration rolled down her spine.
“What sort of confession?” James peered at a slice of fruitcake, then exchanged it for a muffin.
“You already know a great deal about me, considering we’ve been friends since childhood.” Talia wiped her brow with the back of her hand. The sound of her heartbeat filled her head. “But there is…there is one thing you do not know about me. One thing you haven’t yet discovered.”
“What might that be, poppet?” James bit into the muffin and glanced at her.
Talia released her shawl and let it fall to the floor behind her. Hot air cascaded across her already-flushed skin.
“I want to marry you,” she said.
The muffin dropped to the carpet. For one awful moment James just stared at her. All the blood rushed from Talia’s head as she waited with heart-stopping fear for his response.
Then it happened. His eyes flickered to the creamy swell of her bosom. And lingered.
A surge of triumph filled Talia. She steeled her shaky courage and pressed forward with the speech she had rehearsed.
“I couldn’t a-allow you to leave yet again without knowing the truth of my…my feelings for you,” she stammered. “I love you, James. I’ve loved you since I was a girl, back when we used to climb trees and play hoops and ride horses. I loved you when you went off to university, and every time you set forth on one expedition or another. I’ve waited for your letters, longed for your return, and…and when I heard you were leaving again, I knew I had to tell you the truth. By rights I ought to have married already, but I’ve never…never wanted to marry anyone except you. Because I love you.”
He managed to pull his gaze from her bosom and look at her. Shock rather than desire filled his eyes.
Talia grasped the mantel with one hand and tried to pull air into her tight lungs. “I know this is sudden, that you’ve always looked upon me as a friend, but I—”
The strangled tone in his voice caused a resurgence of fear. Her fingers tightened on the mantel. Words crowded in her throat.
James pushed to his feet and approached her, his boots soundless on the thick carpet. For an instant, Talia dared to believe her long-held dreams would come true, that he would gather her in his arms, confess to his mutual love, and then press his mouth to hers…
The stench of burning silk filled Talia’s nose the second James grabbed her shoulders. Instead of crushing her passionately against his chest, he yanked her away from the fireplace. Talia stumbled, her heart catching in her throat. James cursed.