The carriage jolted to a stop, and I winced as my gold harp pin stabbed into my shoulder. That bloody thing would be the death of me. I rearranged the heavy green mantle barely covering my chest, my fingertips lingering on the shimmering curve of the harp pin holding it in place. Hopefully no one would look too closely and realize it was only polished brass. My hand still ached from rubbing the stupid thing to make it shine.
Taking a deep breath, I tumbled out of the carriage, and a thick mist hit my face, cooling my burning cheeks. The street was a parade of pastel silks as a swarm of ladies swept across the cobblestones toward the entrance of Warren’s. A sick, twisting feeling settled into my stomach, and I turned to my companion, Lady Christine Elliot, as she stepped to the ground with the grace of a butterfly, her mint skirts swirling around her like spring leaves.
Reaching out to take hold of the buttery fabric of her glove, I grasped a loose lock of my hair with my other hand and twisted it with my trembling fingers. “I probably should have at least put my hair up, don’t you think?”
She laughed, nudging me with her shoulder as the carriage clopped away.“Oh, you look incredible, Audrey.” Her pale gray eyes glittered as she peered through the crowd, searching for important people she knew. Bright yellow light poured through the wide entryway as people crammed inside, and the smell of perfume, sweat, and punch made my eyes water, even from the street.
“You’re the talk of the town. The beautiful and mysterious author of The Chieftain’s Daughter,” she whispered, encircling her arm with mine. “It won’t do to have you dressed as a dowdy lady’s companion. You said so, yourself.”
I glanced down at the costume I had concocted from castoffs in Christine’s closet. My dress was an ivory Grecian monstrosity, pooling around my feet in great gauzy folds. I fumbled with the top, trying to disguise some of my ample décolletage, but Christine snapped her fan against my fingers.
“Stop pulling at it!” she hissed. “You look radiant.” She stopped and narrowed her eyes at the golden tiara pinned in my hair. “Wait.”
She pulled me into the shadows and reached up, securing it tighter with pins. I flinched as she pulled at my scalp.
“There,” she whispered, leaning back with a wide smile.
I returned her admiring gaze with a small grin, but my insides twisted in knots at parading around Warren’s in such frippery.
Fraud. Charlatan. Upstart. Fake.
The words echoed through my mind, chiming in every second like a broken clock. But it was too late to turn back now. I knew what I needed to do.
“The costume is genius,” Christine said, dragging me back up the stairs. “After tonight, all of London will be clamoring for your book. You are quite the original.”
I sighed. “An original, Christine? I am a copy of my own character.”
“And quite a fine copy you are too.” She swatted me again with her fan. “You are so lovely, Audrey. Truly. I know you care about your work, but you are a woman. No one is going to take you seriously anyway. Why not enjoy yourself, my little Roisin?”
She used the name of my main character from The Chieftain’s Daughter. She started calling me by it soon after she read my book, and the name stuck. I had to remind her of the Gaelic pronunciation sometimes, Ro-sheen, especially after she’d had a few glasses of wine.
I studied my friend from the corner of my eye, her flushed cheeks, her wild, darting eyes. Her drinking had grown worse since the last letter from her husband, Viscount William Elliot. Last night she tiptoed into my room, drunk and hysterical, clutching the short note in her hands, weeping that he had abandoned her. And maybe he had. Rumors followed her wherever we went, but Christine was far beyond caring at this point. She had married at sixteen and told me time and time again how much marriage was a prison, but I knew she didn’t mean it. Not really. Not with the way she cried for Lord Elliot.
But Christine needn’t worry. I had no intentions of marrying. I wanted to be a writer, and marriage would shut those hopes down as quickly as I said, “I do.” I merely required enough to support my sister until she could find a suitable husband. As for myself, all I needed was a writing desk and a bed. My breathing steadied as a vision filled my mind of a small set of apartments in Dublin, a stack of fresh paper, a wellspring of ink for penning stories. If the world needed an Irish princess, then I could play that role…for a price.
Pealing laughter and music echoed in my ears, and we pressed against the mob of bodies, all of us vying to get into Warren’s. The host knew Christine, but he paused and gazed down his nose at me.
“Lady Elliot, is your companion a member?” he asked in a nasally voice.
Christine gasped, flailing her arms and shaking her head in horror. “Mr. Roland! Do you not know who this is? This is Miss Audrey Byrnes. The Princess Roisin herself.”
A buzz emerged from the crowd, and my name passed beneath gloved palms and brocaded fans.
“My good man,” she reproached. “Haven’t you read The Chieftain’s Daughter?”
The host cleared his throat and nodded, sheer panic passing over his beady eyes. No one argued with Lady Elliot. No one would dare. Even with her drinking, her wild behavior, her lurid sexual affairs...she still came from one of the most powerful families in England, and her husband remained a formidable political powerhouse—albeit an absentee one.
Even still, I threw my shoulders back and attempted to appear as regal as possible. The heat of dozens of pairs of eyes grazing over my costume made my skin prickle beneath my gown. My crown was an iron weight on my head, the pins holding it in place pulling my hair too tight. I clenched my fists in the fold of my dress in a desperate attempt not to scratch at my scalp.
“Of course,” Mr. Roland mumbled with a half-hearted gesture. “Be my guest, Lady Elliot...and Princess Roisin.”
The host half snarled the last part, but Christine flounced past him, her nose in the air. I whisked after her, grasping at her elbow as we entered the ballroom. My name swept through the hall like a rushing wind, and I swallowed the panic in my throat. I had grown up in my father’s theatre, and while mother refused to let my sister or me take the stage, I knew what it meant to be an actress. How to make myself larger than life. Tonight would be the performance of a lifetime.
It had to be.
Christine’s hand slipped into mine, and she flashed me a dazzling smile, the candlelight catching her diamond earrings and casting rainbows on her cheek. “Just play along,” she whispered. “You’ll see.”
The dance floor was a sea of rustling silk chiffon, and through the swirl of color, a pride of young men approached us. One of them I recognized as Lord Gerald, one of Christine’s former lovers. She gave him a tight smile and curtsied after he bowed to her.
“You look lovely this evening, Lady Elliot.” His eyes wandered over to me, and he flashed me a warm smile. “This must be the Chieftain’s Daughter,” he exclaimed, taking my hand as I dipped into a low curtsy to greet him.
He leaned in, his eyes wide. “Is it true that the Celts still perform human sacrifices? I say, I found that part of the novel most ghastly.”
I paled, not sure how to respond. My aim was to write something entertaining, but I could not have imagined anyone would have blurred the lines between fact and fiction so readily.
Christine took my arm and pulled me away. “The Celts only sacrifice young, impressionable Englishmen now, Lord Gerald. Do yourself a favor and stay away. Excuse us.”
I hid my giggle with my gloved hand, giving Christine’s shoulder a playful shove. “You’re going to make a scandal out of me.”
She smiled. “Oh, my dear Audrey. I have enough scandal for the both of us.”
It was true. The ton had no idea how to handle the wild and radical Lady Elliot. She was easily one of the richest, most fashionable women in England, and no one would dare censure her. But even the ton had its limits of what sort of behavior they would handle, and the more Lord Elliot distanced himself from her, the more licentious her actions became. Any sensible person would have cut ties with her, but I wouldn’t abandon my best friend, my creative partner, the woman who lifted me up from governess drudgery and into a world of aristocratic splendor. She had been raised in Ireland, albeit in a much grander estate, but I suppose that made us kinswomen in a way. She had found me serving a wealthy family outside of Dublin and spirited me away to London as her lady’s companion. I could not have declined even if I wanted to. The small stipend she supplied helped with my sister Lyddy’s medical needs, and with no governess duties, my days were left free to write novels. It was a new world for women writers, and the Irish were so fashionable now, what with Thomas Moore’s music played in every drawing room from here to Yorkshire. I would turn being Irish into an art form. I was already halfway there anyway. I glanced down at the folds of my velvet mantle, my eyes following the dizzying swirls of Celtic embroidery I had stayed up late stitching on the thick fabric. I prayed those hours I spent away from writing would be worth it for tonight.
Christine pulled at my sleeve. “There he is!”
I peered through the crowd. “Who?”
She swatted me again with her fan. I rubbed my wrist and shot her an irritated glance.
“Lord Weston, silly,” she hissed.
My stomach did a somersault. “Lord Weston the poet?”
“Of course, Lord Weston the poet! What other Lord Weston is there?” She stood on tiptoe, her eyes squinted. “I heard he’s just arrived from Arabia.” She laughed out loud and grabbed my hands. “Oh my. What is he wearing?”
The mob of dancers parted, and at the other end of the room sat a strange tableau of young men, all adorned in Middle Eastern attire, their silk pants fluttering in the slight breeze from the open verandah doors. I recognized Lord Weston right away. His light brown hair curled around his ears, and his sultry eyes stared up at a young coquette, his face not even bothering to mask his obvious boredom as he yawned, blinking hard. He caught my gaze and sat up, whispering in the ear of his friend, an Arabian. He was a giant of a man with a long beard and a sharp, intelligent face. A lock of black hair fell into his eyes, and he glanced in my direction.
I turned, my fingers digging into Christine’s arm.
“This is bad,” I whispered.
“I know,” she said, grabbing a glass of champagne from a passing servant. “Those pajama pants are so ridiculous.”
“No, Christine!” I dragged her behind a pillar. “We have Lord Weston, also known as Gabriel the Pirate King, with his Arabian coterie. I can’t compete with that.”
Her eyes widened over the brim of her glass. “Are you mad? You are Roisin! The Chieftain’s Daughter!”
“It’s not just that…” I bit my lip, my eyes shifting back to the young poet’s entourage. “Lord Weston is so talented. A man of such fine sensibility and feeling. How can I present myself to him like this? He’s everything I aspire to be.”
“Oh, goodness, I hope not.” Christine laughed. “I hear the man is a rake and a cad.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know?”
“Perhaps not so terrible, but he’s tupped every woman in London.” She leaned forward. “Rumors of dark perversions. Unnatural acts.”
I smirked, giving her a pointed stare. “Don’t be getting any ideas now.”
She lifted her fan and snapped it open. “Who me?” She paused and winked, continuing in a whisper. “But aren’t you a bit curious?”
I flashed her a sly smile.
“Ah, there’s my Chieftain’s Daughter.” She grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing footman, and raised her drink to me. “My Roisin.”
I brushed my long hair over my shoulder, resisting the urge to thrust my hands beneath my sweaty arms. My velvet mantle was suffocating in the press of bodies in the ballroom, and my throat tightened, dry and scratchy. Snatching Christine’s champagne glass from her hands, I downed the rest of it, the sparkling liquor tickling the back of my throat.
She giggled, giving my hand a reassuring squeeze. “Listen. If there is one thing I have learned living amongst the ton, it’s that they never forget a spectacle.” Linking her arm in mine, she brought me back to the dance floor, and the crowd parted for us. “Let’s make some mischief, darling, and ensure they never forget the name Audrey Byrnes.”
As if Christine had summoned the poet, Lord Weston suddenly blocked our path, his fists digging into his hips as he appraised our forms. The revelers around us turned to take in the confrontation, and I raised my chin even as my hand grasped tighter onto Christine.
Lord Weston gave us a sharp bow and clutched at his heart. “I could wander the world over and never set eyes upon such feminine graces. The poet and the Celtic Princess, my goodness.”
Christine bowed. “Poet? I can’t imagine to whom you refer!”
My chest tightened to hear Christine disavow her own writing in such a manner. She had several works published, anonymously of course. Even though everyone knew who wrote them, she had to refute all claims to authorship for propriety’s sake. Wealth had only so many privileges, after all.
Heat blazed in Lord Weston’s eyes, and he edged closer to Christine. “‘The Plight of Eros’ was pure genius, my lady. I hope, if you ever come across the author of such fine verse, you will relate the message.”
Christine’s eyes sparkled. “It would be the highest honor coming from you, Lord Weston.” She turned to me, pushing me slightly forward. “May I present Audrey Byrnes from Ireland?”
I bowed and Lord Weston took my hand, planting a kiss on my glove. His warm breath sent a tingle up my arm, and I swallowed hard, glancing at the floor.
“The Chieftain’s Daughter,” he breathed. “I must say, Miss Byrnes, I am an admirer of your work and, if I might add, quite sympathetic to the Irish cause.”
My heart swelled, and I leaned forward. “I did not realize the poet Lord Weston involved himself in politics.”
His eyes narrowed. “I have recently spent several months in Arabia. While the Ottomans might wish to tame those lands, I cannot help but feel regret that they’re losing some wildness essential to our human natures in conquering them.”
“Are the Arabians and the Irish so wild?” I said.
“I do not know, Miss Byrnes,” he countered, his eyes glancing over my form from head to toe. “Are you wild?”
“Only when pressed, Lord Weston.” I glanced up at him with a wide smile.
The large Arab man I had noted before approached, and I stepped back, my heart thumping at being so close to such a formidable form. He said something in Lord Weston’s ear, and the poet grinned at me.
“Sultan Saeed of Arismia requests the next dance,” he said.
I blinked. “The Sultan of…?”
Christine pushed me forward. “She would be honored, Sultan.”
I whirled around. “Wait!”
The sultan took my hand with a firm grip, and I stared up into his deep brown eyes, arrested by his intense gaze. The crowd whispered around us, everyone staring at the spectacle of the Sultan and the Princess. But all I could hear was the sound of the strings ringing in my ears as we made our way to the dance floor. He placed his palm across the small of my back and sent me whirling through the dancers.
I gave him a weak smile. “I didn’t realize a sultan could dance a quadrille.”
He gave a shake of his head. “No English.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well that makes this a bit easier, doesn’t it?”
He smiled down at me, and my insides fluttered at the sight. The sultan was perhaps in his early thirties, tall with broad shoulders, and the smell of clove and cardamom radiated from his body.
“Believe me,” I said beneath my breath. “You would be bored to death if you could understand anything these people said.”
He nodded politely, his eyes never leaving my face.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I continued. “I love the lights and the beauty, but sometimes I feel so very far from home here.”
The sultan twirled me again, and he embraced me for a brief moment, his fingers trailing down my back. Heat bloomed in my face, and my heart pounded. His arm flexed under my hand, hinting at his muscled physique beneath the embroidered silk costume he wore.
“I’m from Ireland, and our dances are a bit different there, you know.” I laughed beneath my breath, thinking of my father’s wild antics amongst the gentry. His fame in Dublin was our ticket to some of the best parties.
But all that fame came at such a cost.
“And the music is much, much better.” I sighed.
I glanced across the room as Saeed whirled me around, spying Christine in close conversation with Lord Weston. I longed to speak to the poet, learn his writing secrets, but the way Christine’s eyes glittered, I knew she would hold his attention forever if she could. Lord Weston would be another conquest for her in a string of heartbroken lovers, but at least he might write some excellent poetry out of the experience. Maybe then Christine would actually bring herself to write again, as well. She hadn’t penned a thing since Lord Elliot left.
“You see,” I said, my attention returning to the handsome sultan. “I came to London to become a writer.” I shook my head. “I mean, I am a writer. I’m just a poor one.”
I laughed and the sultan cocked his head, pretending to listen. It felt good to pour out my secrets to someone, and once I started talking, I found myself unable to stop.
“My father has debts, you see, from his theatre. And from gambling.” I shrugged. “And drinking. Mostly it’s from gambling and drinking. And my sister…”
With the thought of Lyddy, I missed a step and cursed myself. The sultan took my hand and guided me back into the line with the other dancers.
“Thank you. Forgive me,” I said, giving his arm a squeeze. Good heavens, the man was built like a house. “My sister is frail and cannot seek employment in her state. She simply isn’t well enough, so I’m hoping with this book I’ll be able to support her. There is no one else.”
The sultan smiled, his deep brown eyes warm and inviting. Even though he never said a word, my spine melted against his strong hands at my back, at my waist. I wondered if he had a wife at home, or a whole harem of wives. I had read so many silly romances about the devious sexual appetites of sultans, and while I knew it was just colonial claptrap, the thought sent a rush of blood to my head. My fingers grazed up his arm, and his eyes flickered to my hand, heat pulsing from his body. I edged closer to him, longing to connect with someone, to tell all my secrets.
“The fact is,” I whispered. “I’m not a Celtic princess. Not even close. The costume is a pretense. No one is interested in buying books from a frumpy lady’s companion.”
I laughed and Saeed’s beard twitched as he grinned wider, nodding with blind understanding.
“The Chieftain’s Daughter needs to take London by storm, or my family is done for. I never wanted to marry, but I suppose that’s all there is for it.” I gazed over his shoulder at Christine and Lord Weston, drinking and laughing together, not a monetary care in the world. What it must be like to be so rich, so reckless, so devoid of responsibility. For just one night. Alas. I would kill to feel that much freedom for just one night.
“I suppose I can always find a rich sultan,” I said, batting my lashes up at the mysterious man twirling me across the room.
Saeed’s grip tightened across my waist, and I gasped, a shot of desire sweeping down my spine and settling deep in my core. He stared down at me, his breath grazing across my cheek, his eyes boring into me. My lips parted and for a moment, I thought he might kiss me in front of God and everyone.
A rough hand gripped my shoulder. “Excuse me, Miss Byrnes.”
My heart sank, and I realized the song had ended, and the sultan and I were standing alone on the ballroom floor, the dancers all scattered. I turned to face our intruder.
“Lord Castlevane,” I murmured with a curtsy. Revulsion bubbled up in my throat, and I swallowed the invectives I longed to throw at the horrible man standing before me. “I hadn’t realized you had left Dublin.”
Castlevane towered over me, and I edged back toward the sturdy block of manliness that was the sultan. He reached out and placed a protective hand on my arm.
“You didn’t hear about it?” Castlevane said. “It was in the papers. I’m finally taking my seat in Parliament.”
“Ah, excellent.” I flashed him a polite smile. “So you can stamp out more rebellions and slaughter even more dissidents to the empire.”
Lord Castlevane frowned and pressed a hand to his chest. For such a large, hulking man, he had freakishly small hands. “I’m shocked at such sentiments. It wasn’t so long ago I could count you amongst my dearest friends.”
“My dearest friend would never have betrayed a promise.”
Castlevane stared down at me through his pale blue irises, a vein on his forehead pulsing and ready to pop. He took a deep breath. “I wish you would grant me the honor of the next dance.”
I turned away, nudging closer to the sultan. “I believe I would rather face one of your firing squads than dance with you, Lord Castlevane.”
“I need to talk to you.”
“I don’t care about anything you have to say,” I called over my shoulder.
“It’s about your father.”
I stopped. Ice water filled my veins, and the room tilted. Saeed’s hand cupped my elbow, and he made a low sound in his throat. I waved him away and turned around, rage flaming through my chest.
“What about my father?”
The music started up again, and Lord Castlevane bowed. “Dance with me.”
I uttered a most unholy Irish oath beneath my breath and took a step toward him.
The sultan grasped onto my hand and looked down at me with a concerned stare. I gave him a warm smile, and patted his firm chest.
“Thank you, sir.” I stood up on tiptoe and whispered in his ear. “But if anyone should fear for his life, it’s this low-life bastard here.”
His eyes shifted between Lord Castlevane and me, and then he took a deep bow, his hand placed over his heart. The sultan turned on his heel, and I retreated to my nemesis. I stole a glance over my shoulder, watching my last partner as he rejoined Lord Weston in his corner. His eyes locked onto mine, and I looked away, shivering beneath my heavy green mantle.
My heart leapt into my throat, and I felt the sudden urge to run back to him, to hide behind his large frame, allow him to shelter me from the many horrors of Castlevane. I shook my head, returning my attention to the man in question. I didn’t need anyone’s protection, and I certainly didn’t need some sultan from some tiny country at the other end of the world fighting my battles for me.
I bowed to Castlevane, and allowed him to sweep me across the floor to join the other dancers.
“Interesting choice in attire this evening, Miss Audrey,” he said.
My palm sweated, and I wished more than anything to tear it away from Castlevane’s grasp. He reeked of mothballs and stale tobacco.
“Just playing my part,” I said.
“Indeed.” He weaved in and out of the line and caught my hand again. “I must congratulate you on the recent success of The Chieftain’s Daughter. I had no idea when I lent you my carriage to meet with the publisher that your little book would come to see such wide critical acclaim.”
I cringed at his choice of words. It was always the way with Castlevane. Your little book. Your silly novels. I put up with him only because, as father said, we must keep our enemies closer. But I had spent most of my adult life running from this despicable man. It seemed not even London would be far enough. Arismia perhaps? I stifled a giggle, and my eyes flitted across the ballroom, seeking out the mysterious foreigner. He leaned against the wall, his arms crossed tight against his broad chest. As if sensing my gaze, he turned to me, and his dark stare blazed with heat. The skin on the back of my neck prickled, that urge to run back to him rushing through my limbs.
Clearing my throat, I returned my attention to Castlevane. “Let’s drop the social niceties, my lord. What is wrong with my father?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Did you know he has a new play out in Dublin?”
I nodded, twisting my body in an unnatural angle to avoid Castlevane’s brief embrace. “My sister relayed this information to me, yes.”
“Ah, then you’ll know the controversial nature of the subject matter.”
My mind raced to recall what Lyddy had described in her letter. She always neglected key details.
“My father has never been a stranger to controversy,” I said.
“The title of the play is The Rebel Sons, about a young Irishman who rises up against his English lords.”
I shrugged, but inside my heart pounded. Castlevane was leading up to something.
“It’s a silly play,” I murmured. “You know how Father is.”
“That silly play started an all-out riot.” He leaned in, his breath hot against my ear. “He’s under investigation for sedition.”
He released my hand, and I spun across the line of dancers, my knees weakening. I returned to Castlevane in a daze, my movements automatic.
“And that means,” he whispered in my ear, “by extension, so are you.”
I paused and a dancer shoved into my shoulder, mumbling a pardon. I still didn’t move, Castlevane’s words paralyzing my limbs completely.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” I said. “And my father is harmless. You know that.”
Castlevane grasped my elbow and half-dragged me back in line with the other dancers.
“Of course I do, but these are interesting times, Miss Byrnes.” His arm wrapped around me as part of the dance, and my breath hitched as his thick French cologne filled my nostrils. I coughed and he pulled me closer.
“What do you want?” I said in a low voice. That despicable man always had an agenda.
He faced me, whirling me around until I thought I would sprawl across the marble floor in a mess of silk and velvet.
“Your family needs protection, Miss Byrnes.” He leveled his pale eyes at me. “You need protection.”
I narrowed my gaze. “The only person I need protection from is you.”
He dug his fingers into my palm and brought me close against his chest. “My marriage proposal still stands.”
I wrenched my hand away. “And my refusal still stands.” Backing away, I pressed my hand against my forehead. “Excuse me, my lord. I feel dizzy and require some air.”
Before Castlevane could utter a word, I raced away from him, swallowing the scream bubbling up into my throat.