During a minutes-long span three years ago, their lives were forever changed when Lady Morgan Cardiff nearly drowned.
Returning to the disastrous scene for the first time, Emma Hathaway is older, wiser—and ready to move on. With her parents quickly aging, she needs a husband. Alas, she is an awkward, bookish girl with no dowry to recommend her, and she is far from being an Incomparable or an heiress who might rouse a gentleman’s interest. Her hopes of changing the ton’s view of her are dashed upon the arrival of the others involved in that life-altering moment. Aidan Cardiff’s perpetual glares prove he blames Emma for Morgan’s scarred, blind condition. His unfounded hatred alone leaves Emma shaken, but his unbidden advances threaten to thwart her husband-hunt.
Ever since his sister’s failed attempts to take her own life, Aidan Cardiff has been a loathsome, brooding artist. He’s spent three years creating artwork to depict the revenge he’d like to exact against anyone, save himself, who can be blamed for Morgan’s pervasive melancholy. Yet his art has been far from enough to assuage the rage he’s built inside. Morgan is finally ready to live again, but Aidan fears letting her out of his sight—particularly with Emma Hathaway, the chit whose very existence sets his blood to boiling. But is the heat fueling his fire due solely to his anger, or is there something more?
**Please note: This was originally intended to be a trilogy about the three Cardiff siblings. However, sometimes an author has to make tough business decisions and not continue writing a series that isn't financially viable. Such is the case with this one. I am sorry to say that at this time, there are no plans to write the other books in the series. That could change at some point, of course, but for now I don't expect to complete the series. My apologies to all the readers who were looking forward to more.
Late July, 1816—The Year Without a Summer
Heathcote Park, near Topsham, Devon
Aidan Cardiff tore his gaze away from his sister’s pallid face, framed by her near-gold hair, to stare out the great bay window. The action, which ought to have been simple, was anything but. It felt like yet another chunk of his heart ripped out as his head turned, but still he chose instead to watch the swollen banks of the Exe Estuary beneath the eternally gray sky. Everything was dark and foreboding, of late: Morgan’s demeanor; the out-of-doors; Aidan’s own blackened heart.
He swallowed the remnants of his port and scowled upon what once was the most beautiful vista he’d ever witnessed. A few months had certainly changed everything. Once, he would have laughed at such a thought, thinking it an impossibility. There was no more room in his life for laughter, though. Not until Morgan could laugh again.
A firm hand struck his shoulder, jolting him from his sour mood and returning his attention to the house party going on around him.
“The weather has to clear someday.” David, Baron Burington, set a near-empty glass on the table and took up position upon the chair across from Aidan, following his gaze out to the mouth of the river. “You’ll have to come back sometime and fish with me. Maybe in the fall…” He leaned in and raised a brow in question.
A deep frown creased David’s forehead. “But—”
“But nothing. You’ve seen for yourself how difficult this has been for Morgan.” Aidan choked down a show of emotion to keep it at bay. Not now. Not with so many others watching. Not while the ungainly Miss Hathaway could see, should she deign to look up from her oh-so-precious books long enough to notice anything more than the end of her altogether-too-long nose. Allowing his emotion free rein with witnesses present would be tantamount to granting that loathsome betrayer Stoneham an invitation to view Aidan’s own personal visit to hell. “I won’t subject her to this again so soon, and I will not leave her.”
“Your mother will be with her. Not to mention your brother. With Trenowyth, Morgan will be far from alone.”
Upon Aidan’s glare, one with enough ferocity to level a lesser man, David raised his hands and pushed back from the table, rocking the chair on its insubstantial rear legs like a schoolboy flirting with disaster. It was an action Aidan had seen on countless occasions since their days together at Eton, back when Stoneham was always at their side and in the midst of all of their plans. Even now, David grinned in an altogether familiar boyish way as he balanced on the rear legs of the chair.
Everything, it seemed, pointed Aidan’s memories back to Stoneham. He couldn’t escape the bastard no matter how he tried. It was little wonder Morgan couldn’t, either.
Upon Aidan’s glare, David brought his chair down and frowned. “I know. I’m sorry. You all want to be with her right now. I understand, Aidan, I do, but you can’t stop living your life.”
That was exactly what Mother had said to them all before they left—a fact which ate at Aidan’s gut. “I haven’t.” He hated how everyone seemed to think they knew what was best, particularly when they were all well and truly wrong.
“You have. Ever since Morgan—” David cut himself off, glanced warily over his shoulder to where she sat beside Miss Hathaway, and lowered his voice. “Ever since things changed, you’ve hardly left her side. Not a single one of you. Come to Heathcote Park again in the fall. Spend a few weeks with us. Try to forget about it all for a little while. Maybe you could work on your sculpting out here—or you could work with oils or pastels if you don’t want to sculpt. It would be good for you. Getting back to your art…”
Aidan shook his head. “You could visit us at Tavistock Manor. Bring Vanessa. It isn’t too far.”
“We won’t be able to travel, soon.” A sheepish grin spread across David’s still boyish features. He leaned across the table, looked pointedly over to his wife, and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Nessa is doing her best to provide me with an heir.”
“Indeed?” Even in his current dark mood, Aidan couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “I suppose I should offer you my hearty congratulations.”
“I’d prefer for you to say you’ll come in the fall. How does October sound?”
Before Aidan could refuse once more, a flash of shimmering yellow caught his eye out the window, moving toward the estuary in the distance. Cheerful pink had no place amongst the dreary gray so ever present this summer. Morgan. No!
Aidan bolted from his seat, sending the delicate Louis XIV chair splintering to the ground behind him. Ignoring the shouts of dismay left in his wake, he hurtled through the fussy room and into the corridor. At the far end of the hall, almost to the door, the brown hair and gangly limbs of Miss Hathaway sprinted ahead of him, her sunny yellow skirts held up about her knees so she could run full-out.
She flung open the door and careened through it. “Lady Morgan! Stop! Oh gracious heavens, you mustn’t.” Her panicked voice became muffled as the door slammed closed behind her.
Aidan ought to throttle the chit for allowing Morgan out of her sight. When he finished with that, he’d throttle her again for alerting neither himself nor his brother Niall, the Earl of Trenowyth, that something was amiss with their sister. Surely she recognized the gravity of the situation. Or had she been too engrossed in her bloody books to notice how delicate Morgan was, how volatile her thoughts?
No, she knew. He’d made certain of it before he ever left Morgan in her care. That could only mean Miss Hathaway hadn’t cared, that she’d felt her precious books were more important than Morgan’s needs.
Reaching the end of the hall at last, he shoved aside a stricken footman who had finally condescended to make an appearance at his post. Aidan almost ripped the door from its hinges in his haste to get to his sister.
His heart thudded to a standstill.
Morgan had already taken several steps into the water. Her curls whipped around her head in a ghastly frenzy, the golden and white hues intensified in the last vestiges of the setting sun that had peeked through the storm clouds as the winter-like winds howled around her.
He’d never get there in time.
The slap of his Hessians against the flagstone drive reverberated in his head. Morgan went deeper into the surge of water, her gown of sunny yellow muslin floating up and enveloping her.
Miss Hathaway leapt in after her, spindly arms and legs flailing in wild tumult. With Aidan’s usual turn of the cards, the chit likely couldn’t swim and would cause more harm than good. He’d be lucky to rescue even one of them; both would be asking for too much favor from heaven, particularly for someone with such a history of transgressions as he. Although, why should he rescue Miss Hathaway, when she could have prevented this entire situation to begin with? Leaving her to her death would only add to his aforementioned list, damn it all.
The water sloshed about, reaching his ears. Too much distance still. Icy shards pricked the walls of his lungs, but Aidan forced himself to ignore them and ran faster.
Morgan’s head went under as he reached the edge of the water. A golden halo floated atop the estuary where she’d just been, nearly halfway to the opposite bank, and then abruptly fell below.
Miss Hathaway filled her lungs and dove after Morgan, her dark hair quickly disappearing beneath the water, the yellow of her gown blocking the gold of Morgan’s hair from his view. Aidan ran into the riverbed, oblivious to anything but reaching his sister. The force of the water slowed his progress to a near crawl, and he cursed the impediment aloud, uncaring as to who might hear his coarse tongue. Each second that ticked by meant he was a second closer to losing his sister. Forever.
That couldn’t happen. He couldn’t allow it.
By the time he was waist-deep, Miss Hathaway’s head reappeared above the undulating surface. Another breath, and down she went again, leaving only a torrent of ripples behind.
After a few more steps he was deep enough to swim. Aidan took a great breath and pushed off against the mud bank. The weight of his coat and boots threatened to pull him under. Good God, how could either of the ladies manage with their skirts if he was having such difficulty? He fought against the heaviness with all his might while frantically scanning for a sign of Morgan.
Finally, about twenty feet away, he saw them: Miss Hathaway thrashing with the wildness of a trapped hellcat, holding tight to the unresponsive hand of his sister. Despite the ferocity of her kicks, she made no progress. If anything, the two women were heading the opposite direction from what she intended. With all her flailing, they were sinking in an almost whirlpool-like manner instead of rising. What the devil was she thinking?
Aidan swam toward the chaos, the water closing over his head as he dove beneath the surface. When he reached them, he fought through Miss Hathaway’s flapping limbs and ripped the fingers of her death-grip from Morgan’s arm. She kicked again, sending a foot into his gullet. She reached for him, her fingers desperately seeking purchase in her panic and scratching his arm and face in the process.
She’d be the death of them all if he couldn’t contain her hysteria.
He pushed her away with a solid shove toward the surface. Then he wrapped his arm around Morgan’s waist and followed after her.
When he broke through, a painful gasp refilled his lungs. Aidan swam for the shore, holding Morgan above the water with one arm and willing her to breathe. A series of shouts and splashes sounded behind him as David reached Miss Hathaway and dragged her to the embankment. Seconds later, David’s wife reached the two of them, and then Niall took hold of Morgan’s arm to pull her free of the water.
Aidan coughed back tears and river water as he sat on the bank. He draped his sister’s unresponsive form over his lap. Her empty eyes stared back at him.
No breath. No sound. No movement.
Gone. How could she be gone? How could he have allowed it to happen?
Niall sank to his knees before them and cupped Morgan’s face in his hands.
A crowd had gathered, as the entire house party had apparently followed after him. Servants rushed through the crowd, carrying blankets. A few feet away, Miss Hathaway spluttered, relieving her lungs of the muddy water. She gasped for breath, but all he could see was her teeth—big, white teeth surrounded by mud and muck.
If she had acted more quickly…if she had alerted him to Morgan’s departure instead of running off alone and attempting a rescue of which she was both incompetent and incapable, none of this would have happened. Morgan would still be alive. Breathing. Warm and safe inside.
That damned girl killed my sister.
Aidan glared across at her, filling his gaze with every ounce of rage and fear and grief and pain that had filled his life these four months, blaming the girl though in truth the blame rested elsewhere.
He needed someone to fault other than himself. Someone. Something.
Lady Burington draped a blanket over the shivering Miss Hathaway’s shoulders. In his mind, Aidan set it aflame, permanently affixing the image in his mind like a piece of artwork. Even that would not serve as justice for his loss. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
Then, inexplicably, Morgan’s body jerked in his arms. Aidan’s focus lurched back to his sister. Another movement. A flood of water left her mouth, followed by a series of violent, wracking coughs. Her vacant eyes looked first to Niall, then to Aidan as they filled with desperate tears.
She was alive. Morgan was alive. Thank God in heaven.
She slowly shook her head, an almost imperceptible motion. Her mouth formed a word, but no sound came out as her eyes bored holes through his. Tears streamed a jagged path down her river-stained cheeks.