Raven agrees to pose as a missing noblewoman, too intrigued with her employer to worry about getting caught.
When Raven Emerson, actress extraordinaire, is asked to impersonate a missing noblewoman, she is curious enough to accept despite the risk to herself should she get caught. Delving into the mystery that is her new employer occupies her despite the physical temptation the man represents. Having sworn never to take another protector after the horrifying spectacle she'd made of herself with the last one, this is a challenge of monumental proportions.
Her employer, the elusive Duke of Windhaven, is desperate to make his family think he is happily and properly engaged. Hiring Raven is a means to an end. Falling in love with her merely increases his determination to call the beautiful actress his own. Staging a phony marriage ceremony to satisfy his grandmother helps reveal certain things about Raven that do not add up. Fighting demons from his own past, he convinces her to uphold the charade until he can uncover the secrets of her childhood.
“It’s insane, Raven. He’s insane. How can you even consider it?”
Raven Emerson stared at Adam, her slightly raised brows the only sign of her annoyance. Adam’s wife, Bri, was strangely silent. Normally, she was full of ideas and opinions, some quite scandalous, but today she was keeping her thoughts to herself. Raven was unsure why this was but decided to spare her friend the necessity of giving her opinion in front of Adam.
“I don’t see how my decision is any concern of yours, Adam Prestwich,” replied Raven in her throaty voice. Her expression revealed nothing.
“None of my concern?” Disbelief was writ plain on the baronet’s handsome face. “And how, madam, do you suppose that?”
His tone had taken on a dangerous silkiness that Raven knew meant he was more than a little perturbed. She didn’t care. She was no longer his to command and she’d be damned if she’d let him try.
“I’m not your responsibility now,” she told him. “You have a wife and children to worry about. Leave me be.”
Adam stared at her. “You may not be my mistress anymore but you’re still my friend and my wife’s as well.” He paused but Raven said nothing. “You cannot have thought this through!” he finally exploded.
“I assure you, I have,” she told him quietly—and completely without truth. She caught the look of surprise on Bri’s face but ignored it. “Lord Windhaven assures me I will be well paid and have nothing to fear from his family provided I play my part well.” A ghost of a smile crossed her lips. “And there is little fear of that considering I’ve been an actress for years.”
“But you have acted in nothing for nearly a year, Raven,” Adam pointed out mockingly. “Are you sure you remember how?”
Raven glared at him in response. She was used to Adam’s callousness. She had been under his protection for years before he met and married Lady Brianna Derring, a titled lady in her own right and running from her family. Adam’s hands had been full to overflowing with Bri’s problems and while Raven had been of some considerable help to the couple, she had also been in the way.
Adam released an exasperated breath. “The man must be completely balmy to ask you to impersonate a peeress, Raven. Either that or he views you as expendable. Do you realize they will hang you if you’re discovered? And his family will probably be the first to lead you to the scaffold. Can he protect you then?”
Raven shrugged with seeming nonchalance. “He’s a duke,” she said carelessly. Inside she was frightened but she’d never reveal that to the odious man before her.
A shiver of excitement coursed through her. Her life had become a trifle boring of late—a circumstance she blamed entirely on her past decisions and her belief that she had a penance to pay for giving in to temptation—once with Adam and once with…
She pushed her other indiscretion determinedly from her mind.
While her thoughts were wandering, Sir Adam Prestwich had rounded on her. “You will die, Raven, duke or not. They will not hesitate to kill an actress grown too puffed up in her own consequence. You know the aristocracy prides itself in keeping out the mushrooms and counter-jumpers. It doesn’t matter that you were once the toast of Drury Lane, you’ll die.”
“Adam, please,” protested his wife from her perch on the window seat. The actress had become slightly pale during Adam’s diatribe.
Adam’s severe expression settled on Bri’s pleading face. “Am I being too blunt, my love? Should I sugarcoat it and pretend the situation is not as serious as it seems? And what good, may I ask, will that do?”
Bri scowled at him. “Nothing, I suppose, but this is Raven’s decision, you know.”
“And what is your opinion, madam wife?” he asked, but Bri clamped her mouth shut and refused to answer. “Very well, my lady, don’t tell me. But be assured I will hold you personally responsible if I find out you encouraged her in this madness.”
Bri offered a feline grin. Adam just shook his head and looked back at Raven. “If you insist on this folly, despite my better judgment, I promise to help in any way I can when you are found out. Which won’t be much, all things considered.” With a mocking bow, Adam stormed from the room, leaving the ladies alone.
“What do you think?” Raven inquired casually. She studied her friend’s face closely and felt an odd sense of relief at the smile lurking just below the surface of Bri’s arresting countenance. Then Bri frowned, effectively killing any sense of relief and starting a twinge of doubt in Raven’s decision.
“Have you thought this through?”
“Of course I have. What sort of bufflehead do you think I am?”
Bri’s left eyebrow quirked slightly. “Honestly, you’re attics to let for entertaining acceptance for more than a second. But,” her lovely face split into a grin, “I would be a liar if I told you I was not the least bit intrigued. And Lord Windhaven is very handsome. One must wonder why he should have to purchase a bride. Even a pretend one.” Her emerald green eyes twinkled wickedly.
Raven smiled back. “Don’t let Adam hear you say that. He’d likely call the duke out for daring to be handsome enough to catch your eye.”
Bri laughed at that. Raven frowned slightly. “I have only one problem.”
“Yes. His grace doesn’t know about her and I can hardly foist an unknown girl on him when I am supposed to be Dunston’s long-lost daughter. I highly doubt she would turn up with another young woman in tow.”
“I agree. You can leave her here. I know Callie would love to have her friend. And Adam adores your sister.”
“Thank you. I admit I would feel more comfortable if she is here.”
“I have to know, Raven, what will you do if someone hears of your “reappearance” and chooses to investigate?”
“Lord Windhaven assured me that his family has not left his primary estate for years and the only one that might actually recognize me would be his brother who has not even visited the estate in five or six years.”
“I can’t say I really care for those odds, Raven.”
“Nor do I. But,” she said, searching her mind for something to say, “there was something in his expression that struck me as…desperate. I don’t know quite how to explain it.”
“And you long for adventure,” murmured Bri shrewdly.
Raven smiled. “Don’t we all.” Her smile disappeared. “There is a mystery there somewhere, Bri. And I mean to find out why a handsome and wealthy duke feels the need to trick his family into believing he is engaged to marry.”