DOES LOVE REALLY HEAL ALL WOUNDS?
After being widowed by a steeplechase accident in Ireland, Lady Kate Whelan abandons the turf. But once her mourning is complete, her late husband’s debts drive her to seek help in Newmarket amidst the whirl of a race meet. There she encounters antiquities expert Evan Rhys, her late husband’s roguish friend-whom she hasn’t seen since the day of his lordship’s mysterious death.
Now that fate has reunited them, Evan seizes the chance to win over the woman he’s always loved. But once back within the old stone walls of Whelan House, long-held secrets come to light that shake up everything Kate thought she knew about her marriage. Now she wonders who she can trust with her heart—and Evan must decide between love and a truth that will separate him from all his heart desires.
“Romain’s elegant prose, inventive plotting, brilliantly nuanced characters, and refreshingly different setting make her latest superbly written romance de rigueur for Regency romance fans.”
—Booklist, STARRED review
“Fans of friends-to-lovers romance will swoon.”
“Smart banter, a heroine who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs, and sensuality that practically makes my iPad sizzle….Scandalous Ever After was a super enjoyable read.”
—All About Romance
“The best book that Theresa Romain has written. It touched my heart and my emotions, and I loved Evan and Kate. Every scene with them together was pure joy to read…. Scandalous Ever After goes on my favorites list for 2017 and I recommend it most highly.”
—Roses are Blue, 5 stars, TOP PICK
“One of the best friends-to-lovers stories I have ever read.”
—Buried Under Romance, 5 stars
“Unique characters, finely detailed backdrops, unsurpassed storytelling, and exquisite writing…Ms. Romain gets better with every book she writes.”
—Fresh Fiction, Fresh Pick!
“[Kate and Evan] have terrific chemistry and their many verbal exchanges are witty, funny, and utterly delightful. …The love story is beautifully nuanced.”
—Romantic Historical Reviews, 4.5 stars
“Romain delivers another exciting and romantic installment in her Romance of the Turf series…[A] lovely passion-filled romance.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
“Abounds with delightful characters.”
“Romain writes the romantic parts of the tale so well…A solid effort from an up-and-coming writer.”
About the Book
September 29, 1818
In a single moment, a person’s world could alter forever. For Evan Rhys, it had done so twice: thirteen years before, when he found everything he wanted in life, then again two years ago when he at last admitted it could never be his. With that, he had lost his taste for world-altering moments—unless, of course, they promised to be the good sort.
He was not expecting such a moment on this day. And certainly not the good sort.
No, he had decided long ago that an ordinary day was pleasant enough. That is, ordinary for Evan. Since his days encompassed everything from researching in dusty libraries to unearthing the remains of an ancient castle, ordinary didn’t narrow the scope much.
Today’s ordinary fell somewhere between the two extremes. As with every other lecture he’d given in recent weeks, the windows were uncovered once the final magic lantern slide was shown. From the lectern at the front of the hall, Evan faced the rows of high- backed wooden benches, filled shoulder to shoulder with the curious public.
“Doubtless you are all devastated to know that was the last slide.” A chuckle eddied through the crowd. Evan continued, “I hope you enjoyed seeing these examples of the fraudulent Roman antiquities plaguing today’s dealers and collectors—not to mention His Majesty’s Customs and Excise. If any of you have questions, I will take those now.”
This was his favorite part of a lecture, always, when other curious minds inquired of his.
The first comment came from a plump don in a towering neckcloth. “You discussed the use of these items in smuggling. But surely there is no harm in creating reproductions of antique stone carvings, as long as nothing is smuggled within them?”
“If the carvings are marked as false, no. But if collected or placed into a museum as genuine, then history is forever undermined.” Evan’s years at Cambridge hadn’t given him half the appreciation for history that digging about in the dirt of his native Wales had. “Good news, though: anyone in this audience will now be able to spot the stone common to these carvings. Go forth and lecture. Share your newfound knowledge. But you’ll all have to paint your own magic lantern slides. I’m no artist, and creating this set took me far longer than I ought to admit. So I’m not admitting anything.”
Another chuckle from the crowd. Good! This was a lively audience. Evan hoped that by keeping their attention, they’d remember his words better. Not that his joking manner could save a bit of history, but…
Well, maybe it could. Who knew what would make the difference between catching a fraud and letting it pass? Misrepresenting the truth of the past was wrong.
Nothing had given him a sense of purpose like holding fast to that idea. And by God, he had needed a sense of purpose since that day two years ago, when he left Ireland without a backward glance.
A reedy scholar in academic blacks had the next question. “How can you be sure the stone comes from Ireland, as you insist?”
“The shade and fine grain are unmistakable. I saw it often when I lived there and dug about for artifacts.” With more force than necessary, he began replacing the painted glass slides in their padded case.
A female voice then spoke up. “What keeps you from Ireland, if you believe answers are to be found there?” And the world tipped and altered for the third time in Evan’s life, because that was a familiar female voice. The voice of the woman he had loved since their first meeting, and whom he’d hoped never to see again.
Never, he had told himself. Yet his head snapped up, gaze roving the assembled crowd until he spotted her. “Kate…Ka—Ka…” Kate. Otherwise known as Abigail Catherine Durham, the Irish Countess of Whelan. Widow of his closest friend; unwitting keeper of Evan’s heart.
He was babbling. He was stiff with shock. It was impossible that she should be here in this lecture hall—yet here she was.
He hadn’t seen her for two years, but if it had been two decades he would recognize her at once. The stubborn curl of her pinned-up hair, the impish arch of her brow. Her straight nose, her firm chin softened by a cleft like the kiss of a fairy. Her mobile mouth was bent in a got-you sort of smile, wry and friendly.
Always friendly, and no more.
He was staring, wasn’t he? God.
The wooden benches of the lecture hall were arrayed in tight, dizzying rows ever upward. Their occupants were beginning to whisper, a storm of quiet sound that reminded Evan of wind through a grassy slough.
“Um…catastrophe,” he fumbled. Kate’s twist of a smile grew. “It was a…personal sort of catastrophe. Which has kept me from Ireland.”
He cleared his throat, trying to banish the tightness that clutched at it. Bollocks. He wanted to speak to her. He had to. Time to bring this lecture to an end.
“Since there are no more questions,” he said loudly over a scatter of called-out queries, “then I’ll leave you with a piece of advice. The best clue that you’ve found one of these false antiquities is that the head pops off to reveal a hollow inside, where the pieces were joined. But I’d advise you not to yank at the head of every supposedly Roman statue you see, lest you damage a true antique. Use your judgment before you use your hands.”
“What should one do if one finds such a carving?” asked a quavering, elderly voice.
“Open it up, if you safely can. If you find smuggled brandy inside, drink it. Then take it to an exciseman, as there might be a reward in it for you.” He paused. “If you drank smuggled brandy, probably best not to mention that to the exciseman.”
“But we’re inland,” protested another voice. “They’re nowhere close by.”
Evan slotted the last magic lantern slide into place. “Write to me, then, in care of Ardent House in Anglesey. I shall be collecting post from there until March, after which time I will reside in Greece.”
Not a bit too far away, if Kate could appear in an unassuming lecture hall in Cambridge.
He closed the padded case for his slides, then thanked the audience for their time. For once, he didn’t want anyone to linger; didn’t want to talk with the lagging curious about painted slides or excavation or the ton’s fascination with collecting the past, false or not. He wanted them to leave, and despite his long- held determination never to see Kate again…damn, he hoped she would stay.
And she did. Though he did not look in her direction as the hall emptied, he felt her presence like a hollow place filled.
Usually when a lecture was done, he relished the silent room. The honeyed wood, the slanting autumn light…the faint drift of lemon polish wafting through the air. It ought to offer a sliver of peace—yet now, his heart thumped as if he’d run past the point of exhaustion.
Two years was a long time to be separated from one’s heart.
Thirteen years was a long time to deny it existed.
Into the blanketing quiet came a rustle of fabric. Footfalls, light and heavy. Evan fumbled the latch on his slide case. Summoning his most devil-may-care grin, he looked at the row where Kate remained, a man standing at her side.
“Kate. How good to see you.” He bowed a greeting, then mounted a few steps to meet her and her companion at their bench.
Kate, her hair a riot of red-gold, was dressed in autumn shades as though she had never been widowed. Evan shot a curious glance at the hulking fellow who stood beside Kate. A new swain? Suddenly, it was difficult to think what to say next.
“Evan.” The curve of her mouth was a sliver of sunlight. “You are a master of understatement. I shall follow your example and merely say that it is good to see you too.”
For a moment they simply looked at one another. Evan wanted to whoop and jig and pull her into an embrace all at once—and something of this eagerness must have shown in his expression, for a blush painted her cheeks as she replied.
“Ah, I do not believe you have ever met my twin brother, Mr. Jonah Chandler.”
“He knows he hasn’t. I never went to Ireland.” The brother—thank God, a brother and not a suitor—leaned forward, hand extended. “Interesting lecture, Mr. Rhys.”
“Evan, please.” He shook Jonah Chandler’s hand, then cut his gaze toward Kate. She was smiling again, the blush faded as if it had never been.
Friendly as ever.
“I’m glad to make your acquaintance,” Evan said to her brother. “Especially since you’ve known Kate since her young and awkward years. You must tell me all about them.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Kate replied, “for I can match any embarrassing story he tells about me with two about him.”
“Only two?” Jonah frowned. “Your memory is failing.”
Evan cleared his throat. “Yes, well. A good memory can be a curse, so no harm done. Tell me, do you share your sister’s interest in antiquities?”
“I’ve been forced to more than once,” said the taller man drily. “Not only today. For our birthday a few years ago, she sent me flint.”
“Indeed I did,” Kate said proudly. “Ancient flint. Napped over a thousand years ago.”
“That’s a good gift,” Evan replied. “At least, it is for people who like that sort of gift.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Jonah said. “It fit into my tinderbox well enough.”
Kate huffed, humor touching the corner of her mouth. “I sincerely hope you are teasing.”
“Hope all you like,” said her twin mildly. “Since I sent you a bolt of silk for our birthday, and you sent me rocks.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Brothers. So ungrateful.”
“They are,” Evan agreed. “My own brother is extremely so.”
Light words had allowed him to regain his composure—and now, he wondered at the heavier question of her presence in Cambridge. “Kate.” He hesitated, considering how best to word his question. “I didn’t expect to see you this side of the Irish Sea.”
She held his gaze with sea-colored eyes. “Did you ever plan to see me on the other side of it, then?”
No. Hell no. For the sake of his heart and his conscience, never again.
“My schedule has not permitted—that is, work has required me to remain in…” He steadied himself on the high back of a bench. “I hope it may not be impossible for me to—”
“Bollocks.” Kate folded her arms.
“Sisters,” muttered Jonah. “So improper.”
Evan ignored this. “Why are you in Cambridge, Kate? Is everything all right in Thurles?”
“Everything is—different.” She pressed her lips together, halting further explanation. “I am briefly visiting my father in Newmarket. This was not so far to travel to see an old friend.”
He did not miss the dodge of the state of affairs in Thurles, the village near Whelan House in County Tipperary. But he pretended he had. “I’m glad you came here,” he said. Which was the perfect truth.
Her smile caught him, as always, right about the heart. “I wasn’t sure it was you, when Jonah first told me a man named Evan Rhys was lecturing on antiquities and smuggling. Rhys? I asked. A horse-mad Welshman who laughs at everything?”
“I’ll grant you horse-mad.” Evan echoed Kate’s light tone. “But look how serious I am. I’m even wearing serious clothing. Starch in my cravat, coat tailored, all that.” His tidy appearance was the opposite of the way he had often dressed in Ireland: slouching and comfortable, ready for a gallop or a dig at a moment’s notice.
“You do look extremely serious,” Jonah said. “Serious enough that I’m going to leave my sister in your keeping. I have to see a man about a horse.”
Kate groaned. “Jonah.”
“It’s fine, Biggie. Talk to your friend. In fact, I’ll make my own way back to Newmarket. Jerome and Hattie will take you home whenever you like.” With a nod, the large fellow eased by Evan and thundered down the few steps to cross the lecture hall, then exit.
“Your brother will be back in but a few minutes,” Evan assured her. “There’s a necessary on the ground floor.”
She chuckled. “I don’t know if I’m glad or sorry to tell you that he was being literal. Brothers aren’t usually keen to travel fifteen miles to oblige a curious sister. Jonah has a meeting with a professor looking to sell, I think, a carriage horse.”
“And is that professor…Jerome, was it?”
“Jerome is one of my father’s chestnuts. Hattie is another. They brought us from Newmarket this morning in my father’s carriage.”
Evan blinked. “Your brother intends to leave you alone for the return journey?”
“Am I alone?” She leveled a blue-green gaze at him.
No. Now that she was here, he would not let her march away so soon. “You were never alone, Kate. Not for years on end.”
She went very still. “What do you mean?”
“That there never were such friends as we.” Another understatement. He truly was master of them. “You taught me to shoot targets. I introduced you to cheroots. Every evening, you and Con and I shared whisky upon whisky, and we three laughed.”
Her head bowed. “So we did. But two years ago, our three became one. Since you left Ireland the day Con died, I have heard nothing from you.”
True, and he had no blithe response to this. “I…”
When he trailed off, she looked down the rows of seats toward the lectern, the case that now held Evan’s magic lantern and slides. “Is this work what kept you away from Whelan House for so long? With not even a letter of condolence?” Her voice was brittle with hurt.
A gray feeling touched his spirit. With a sigh, he settled against the high back of the bench before her. “You’re not the only one who grieved, Kate.”
“So I should have written to you instead?”
He shook his head. No, she shouldn’t have. That would have been impossible within the bounds of propriety. Just as propriety—and the loyalty that had so long bound Evan to Conall Ritchie Durham, the late fifth Earl of Whelan—had demanded Evan cut himself off from that family and from Ireland itself.
“It wasn’t my place to write to you.” He turned away from her, marching down the steps to gather his notes. His slides. The arguments, the evidence he had laboriously created for honesty and integrity.
Honesty, ha. Integrity, bollocks. He’d hidden his secrets, and Con’s, for so long that he was as much a fraud as the sculptures he had drawn in inks and paints.
Her voice followed him like a shadow. “Whose place could it be to write, if not an old friend’s?”
An old friend, she insisted on calling him, but he wasn’t. He was the man who had tumbled for her, swift and sudden as a fall, the first time he met his friend Con’s seventeen-year-old bride.
His feelings for her had never altered. Feelings that had become more difficult to ignore over the years, yet more impossible to speak of. The circumstances of Con’s death placed them utterly beyond the pale.
Not that he could admit any of that to Kate.
Not that he could walk away from her, either.
Instead, he tidied his possessions, thoughts humming with possibilities. By the time he looked at her, he had an idea in mind. “I intend to stay in Newmarket for a few days.” This was true, though the intention was born only that moment. “Might I trouble you and Jerome and Hattie for a ride?”
“That depends.” She descended the steps to the presenter’s pit. “Are you going to stop talking to me again, and force me to ride in silence as I wonder what I’ve done and eventually wind up tossing you out the carriage door?”
He considered. “Probably not.”
She raised her eyes to heaven. “Bollocks. Again. All bollocks.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Whatever she thought he meant— anything, everything—it was true. His choices since meeting her had, for the most part, been bollocks.
He busied himself with the fastened latches of his cases. Checking. Checking again. Awaiting her reply, as she stood near him. Two steps away, maybe one.
“It is,” she said on a sigh. “Since we’re agreed on that much, I suppose you can travel with me back to Newmarket.”
There: this was the perfect example of what he’d meant. Riding in a carriage with her to Newmarket was another in his long line of bollocks choices.
For how was he to spend three hours alone with Kate without revealing his part in her husband’s death?
* * *
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