Authors: Donna Hatch
Tags: #Historical, #Victorian, #Historical Romance, #Inspirational, #love, #Romance, #Regency
"A highly enjoyable read, equal parts tender and mysterious, with characters you'll cheer for from the beginning to the very satisfying end."
—Sarah M. Eden, Multi-award Winning Historical Romance Author
The Rogue Hearts Regency Series:
The Stranger She Married
The Guise of a Gentleman
A Perfect Secret
The Suspect’s Daughter
: “The Reluctant Bride,” “Constant Hearts,” “Emma's Dilemma”
A Timeless Romance Anthology
“A Winter’s Knight”
A Timeless Romance Regency Collection
“Unmasking the Duke”
Stand-alone Regency Short Stories:
Mistletoe Magic, Constant Hearts, Emma's Dilemma, The Reluctant Bride, Troubled Hearts
Queen in Exile
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
original copyright© 2015 Donna Hatch
First Edition Mirror Lake Press, 2015
Digital ISBN 9781311384966
Print ISBN-13: 978-1-5193-9590-0
Print ISBN-10: 1519395906
Cover Art by Lex Valentine
Formatted by Heather Justesen
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without express written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Published in the United States of America
Every book is a combined result of family, friends, and fans, not to mention He from whom all inspiration comes. This makes it difficult to thank people by name who have made an impact on me as a writer, and therefore upon this, my latest book.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Sarah Eden and Janette Rallison, who, when I say “I have an idea but I don’t know where to go with it,” they help me flesh it out into a story with an actual plot. With them, laughter abounds as well as a few moments of brilliance. And to Joyce DiPastena who has never been tactless to say, “Wow, girl, this is the most worthless drivel I’ve ever written” but instead suggests how I might revise my rough drafts. Also, a special thanks to Jennifer Griffith who is a voice of reason and loving encouragement when I’m positive I can’t write and will never make it as a writer, as well as gently pointing out ways to improve my manuscripts.
A big thank you also goes to my family—sisters-in-law and nieces who proofread and then buy my books, and who constantly reassure me when my confidence falters, my brother David who actually reads my books even though romance isn’t his thing, constant encouragement from immediate and extended family, and my children who tell everyone their mom is a real author.
But most of all to my husband. What I thought was mere tolerance on his part I have recently realized is true support, and always has been. I used to mistakenly believe my husband didn’t “get on board” with my annoying writing obsession until I brought home my first royalty check. However, in reality, he was supportive all along. In the beginning, he forked out cash to send me to writer’s conferences, retreats, and writer’s groups. He carried the load of a young family with six children while I was away at those events, sometimes several days at a time. He never complained when dinner sometimes consisted of pancakes from a mix because I’d spent the afternoon in the throes of creativity—which sometimes felt like captivity by my muse—instead of cooking. He never groaned when during a conversation, or dinner, or in the middle of the night, I suddenly said “Oh!” and rushed off to my computer or a nearby piece of paper to capture a thought before it disappeared forever. There were even a few nights when he went to bed alone because I stayed up late writing. (By the way, I still do most of these.) My husband has always been supportive of me and all my interests. He repeatedly proves that with enough patience, hard work, forgiveness, determination, humility, and commitment, that genuine love and happily ever after is real and attainable.
Jocelyn Fairley strode toward the drawing room, determined to ensure tonight’s ball would be a triumph for her father, and would launch him toward his destiny as the next Prime Minister of England. She’d seen to every detail—chosen flowers and food, hired musicians and chalk artists, and invited all the right people, including a few respectable widows who might catch her father’s eye. After all, Mama had been gone three years, and Papa needed a wife at his side.
A single distant violin note sang clear and sweet. Others joined in and then split off, creating the odd cacophony of musical instruments tuning prior to performance. Soon, guests would arrive and Jocelyn’s role as hostess would begin.
As she passed her father’s study, light glimmered from underneath the door. She checked her steps. She’d left Papa in his room with his valet perfecting the folds of his cravat. Who would be in the study?
Perhaps he’d left a lamp lit. As she entered, the door hinges squeaked. The light instantly extinguished, plunging the room into darkness. Only faint streetlight outlined the windows, one of which, oddly, hung open. Pale fog floated by like wraiths. In the hearth, glowing coals stared like soulless eyes.
Chills ran down her spine. “J-Jonathan?” Her voice quivered like a frightened child’s. She took a few cautious steps inside.
Voices and approaching footsteps echoed in the corridor outside Papa’s study, growing closer and louder. The faint rustle of fabric provided a second’s warning before the door behind her closed. A large hand clamped over her mouth. An unyielding force pushed her back against the wall, while a second hand closed over her throat. Shock waves raced through her.
“Quiet!” The harsh whisper vibrated to her knees.
She struggled against her captor, writhing and clawing at his hands. No effect. The hand muffled her attempts to scream. The grip on her throat tightened, not enough to hurt, but its pressure warned at a very real possibility that her assailant could squeeze the life out of her.
A harsh whisper puffed on her ear. “I said be quiet. I will snap your neck if you give me away.”
Oh, heaven above, would this villain kill her? Ravish her? A spasm of fear tore through her. She gulped in tiny, ragged bursts of air that failed to fill her lungs. Her captor’s hot breath fanned her cheek. She pushed against a male chest that might have been made of stone. His coat’s coarse fabric declared him a member of the lower classes, but he smelled faintly of mint and some kind of citrus like bergamot. The increasing pressure on her throat demanded that she make no further moves. Trapped by the assailant, she stood helpless, her heart clanging against her ribs.
Voices outside the study grew louder, and shadows moved across the floor underneath the door. They passed by and all fell silent. Her captor eased back, but his hands remained fixed on her throat and mouth.
Again came the incisive whisper, “If you say a word of this to anyone, I will return and silence you permanently.”
The pressure lifted. For a moment, Jocelyn’s only thoughts centered on gasping for air. A shadow moved to the window, and a streetlight silhouetted a male form. The dark figure sat on the window sill, swung his legs over, and disappeared.
Still gasping, Jocelyn put a hand over her mouth. Her knees gave way, and she sank to the floor. Death had paid her a visit. Death had held her in its grip. Death, inexplicably, left her alive and unharmed. A sob caught in her throat. Shaking, she sat and focused on trying to breathe but only managed to gasp. Her own mortality loomed large. She had faced the prospect of mortality when the news came that her oldest brother lost his life in defense of his country, and again when Mama passed. Jocelyn had realized then that life was fragile and short. But she’d never faced her own imminent extinction.
She took several more steadying breaths and fought to pull herself together. She was alive and uninjured. She would not fall apart like some swooning little flower who needed smelling salts to revive. Cool night air crept in through the window. Fog drifted around the streetlamps transforming the light into a spectral glow. Horse hooves clopped on cobblestones, and voices drifted in from the street. Faint strains of music called to her from inside the house and the hall clock gonged. The party. Their guests. Papa needed her. She would not fail him. She must be at his side to greet their guests.
With Herculean effort, she pushed herself to her feet. She took another breath and let it out slowly. Her heartbeat returned to normal and her shaking ceased. The opened window loomed large and threatening, but she forced herself to cross the room and lean out. She peered up and down the streets but no form belonging to her attacker lurked nearby. Reassured, she pulled the window closed and flipped the lock.
After picking up a candle, Jocelyn set it to the dying coals and waited for its wick to spring to life. She shielded the sputtering flame with her hand and cast an urgent glance around. Nothing seemed amiss, nothing noticeably absent. What had the thief hoped to find? They kept little of value in this room. Perhaps his goal had been another part of the house and Jocelyn had arrived before any real damage could be done.
The front door knocker clanged. Guests had arrived. Drawing on all her inner fortitude, she set down the candle and opened the door. She resisted the urge to look back at the window through which the intruder had fled. Her father awaited.
In the great hall, she paused at the gilded mirror. Wide eyes and a pallid face stared back at her, and combined with the pale blond of her hair and her snowy gown, she appeared ghostly. She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips to force color into them. Though her throat still burned from the attacker’s hand, no marks marred her skin. Only her single strand of pearls lay against the ivory of her neck. She froze. The intruder hadn’t taken her pearls. This refuted the idea that Jocelyn had surprised a common burglar. Then what had he wanted? His threat to harm her if she revealed his presence rang in her ears.
Now was not the time to dwell on that. Tonight belonged to Papa. Smoothing back a wayward strand of hair, Jocelyn cast a glance over her dress to ensure it remained free of wrinkles. Unfortunately, the gown, however expertly fashioned, failed to transform her figure, which leaned toward plump, into one of slender grace. But wishing would not change it. And she had a task at hand. Filling her thoughts with images of her father’s happiness at winning the election, she summoned a smile, and strode forward with all the dignity she possessed.
Her glance fell on a portrait of the loveliest lady she had ever known. Pausing in front of the painting, Jocelyn smiled sadly. “I miss you, Mama.” She kissed her own finger and pressed it to her mother’s cheek in the painting. “I promise to make you proud.”
By all rights, her Mama should be serving as tonight’s hostess, but Jocelyn vowed to serve in that capacity with her whole heart. The burden to help Papa’s rise to fame and glory rested in Jocelyn’s hands.
She drew a breath, squared her shoulders, and marched to face the
whose public opinion could be so easily swayed for ill, and so rarely swayed for good.
Elegant in his black superfine suit, Papa smiled as she reached his side in the drawing room. Only a hint of silver touched his golden hair, as if to declare him a man of experience and wisdom. An answering smile sprang to her lips.