The Viscount and the Hellion by Alyssa Clarke

Chapter 1

London, early April 1816

Miss Frances Fairbanks—Fanny to her close friends and family, clutched the delicately painted fan so firmly it bit through her gloves and would surely leave indentations upon her skin.

“Are you well, Fanny? You’ve gone pale,” her younger sister Eleanor asked, leaning close so her voice could be heard over the strains of the waltz, the laughter, and chatter pulsing through the overcrowded ballroom.

A jolt of apprehension went through Fanny. This was their first large society outing since coming up from their small house in the idyllic town of Penporth in Cornwall a few months ago. Tonight was supposed to prove that their family could fit well within the ton, without bringing shame or scandal to their name. Tonight, their reception and comportment would show that their brother was worthy of being the newly minted Earl of Celdon. She had felt so optimistic in her new gown that she would have fun and get a little flattering attention. Yet, here she stood, gawking at a gentleman in the far corner of the ballroom.

A distressingly familiar gentleman. A warm, fluttering sensation filled her belly, startling her. Who really was that man just now?

“Fanny?” Eleanor called softly, her elegant brows winged in a frown.

“I’m quite well,” she said in a voice that sounded faint even to her ears. “I only need some fresh air.”

The man turned away, and she tipped onto her toes, silently cursing her lack of height. Feeling her sister’s eyes upon her, Fanny murmured, “The crush is overwhelming.”

Amusement lit in Eleanor’s cobalt blue eyes, a perfect replica of Fanny’s and most of their siblings.

“Try to not be too naughty,” her sister said with a primness that was unlike herself. “Do recall everything Colin spoke about at dinner last evening. We must position ourselves to be more respectable within society. Our reputation of ‘those very bad Fairbanks’ mustn’t be allowed to take seed in town and grow.”

Fanny did not answer her sister but followed the gentleman who had snagged her attention. Her heart beating too loudly in her ears, Fanny pushed through the crowd, desperate to keep him in her line of sight. Logically she knew the gentleman she scandalously followed could not be Mr. Simon Gracely, the man she had loved and admired with her entire heart and soul. No, the man I still love. That he had reportedly perished at the Battle of Pyrénées-Atlantiques had not altered her devotion to him or the child they shared.

Fanny escaped the crush and turned down the hallway in time to see the gentleman slip through a doorway that led outside. She hesitated. Only several minutes ago, she had seen her brother Colin go outside, clearly chasing after their etiquette tutor Miss Hermina Fernsby. Fanny did not want to encounter them in Lady Pomeroy’s garden, considering she might stumble upon a tryst. That entire situation would be too mortifying. Her brother was a right rogue, and she had seen the way he looked at Miss Fernsby, as if he would gobble her up in sweet, delectable nips.

Fanny scoffed aloud, the soft sound centering her against the emotions tightening across her chest. It was then she admitted she felt cold and afraid. Terribly so. The sight of that man had been brief, a mere clash of gazes across the expanse of the ballroom, but her body had surged to life with painful immediacy. The reaction had shocked her enough that she had lost sight of him, and when she found him again, his back was to her.

The gait had been familiar, her alarming physical reaction to him petrified her because it was also…familiar, and only Simon Gracely had ever roused her so. And he should not be here; it was inconceivable he could be at this very ball.

It is not possible, she silently cried, willing her feet to move forward. He is dead.

Before she could think more on the matter, her feet moved forward as if commanded by an unseen force. Fanny stepped outside, walking rapidly on the stone path to the gardens. She went down one of the graveled paths, away from the laughter of the guests and strains of the orchestra floating from the ballroom. Thankfully, she did not see her brother or Miss Fernsby, and she surmised Colin had whisked them somewhere more private. However, she did see the black-haired gentleman. He stood with the profound stillness of a marble effigy, his face tilted to the heavens as if in question.

The light from the lantern was miniscule, but it allowed her to discern his sharply slanting cheekbones, that aquiline nose, and full lips. Every cell in Fanny’s body screamed in recognition and surged to life…needy, desperate. It is not possible, she desperately reminded herself once more. She must have made a sound, for that head shifted and piercing green eyes ensnared hers.

She knew those eyes.

A sound of anguish clawed up from Fanny’s throat, and she dazedly realized her entire body shook. The man before her was Simon Gracely, her lover and her dearest friend. A soft misting rain fell between them like a shimmering curtain, and she fought the desire to fling herself into his arms and hug him. He did not move toward her; no joy leaped in his eyes. In truth, his expression was unfathomable, and he merely stared at her with polite civility.

Confusion, along with a pain she did not think her body could bear, rushed inside her and melded as an indistinguishable whole. “Simon?” Fanny asked, for she did not understand anything at this moment. “Is it really you?”

Her voice seemed to bring him alive, and he fully faced her. His gaze skipped over her, traveling from her coiffed chignon to her silver dancing shoes. When their eyes met, there was no familiar heat, only a polite curiosity. “Who might you be, my lady?”

Her hands trembled and her throat tightened. “What do you mean by that outrageous question!”

His gaze remained steady on her face. “I ask once again,” he said with aggrieved patience. “Who are you to speak with me so familiarly?”

Who was this man? There was an aura of arrogance and power about him that she did not associate with her lover.

Fanny leaned against a Neptune fountain quite suddenly, head whirling. “I…Simon, I do not understand. Do you not recognize me?”

That penetrating gaze swept over her once more, and deep inside his eyes, she saw no recognition. A most absurd thought occurred to her. “You are Simon Robert Gracely, aren’t you?”

Steps crunched behind her, and a cultured voice smoothly interrupted, “He is Lord Havisham, Miss Fairbanks, and he is my fiancé.”

Her breath puffed from her lips. Lord Havisham. Good heavens! That meant that his older brother and father had perished sometime in the last two years, and he had inherited the title. Looking at the elegant, powerful man before her, she took a deep, steady breath. Simon was truly the viscount, and he wore that authority like a second skin.

Fanny stiffened as a rather pretty young lady with artfully styled auburn hair strolled into view with Simon’s older sister, the Honorable Vanessa Gracely. The two ladies’ arms were looped together, giving the appearance of being close intimates. They went over to Simon, and an ache pierced Fanny’s heart when she saw his face soften when he looked at his intended. The lady also smiled, her expression taking on an intimate glow. There was a connection between the pair, and it ravaged Fanny to see it. Tears pricked her eyes, and she did her best not to cry in front of them. “I do not understand what is happening; we were told, Simon—”

“Lord Havisham,” Vanessa said sharply, her dark curls bouncing atop her forehead. Piercing green eyes, very much like her brother’s, glared at Fanny. “He is Lord Havisham, Miss Fairbanks. You are not of close enough acquaintance to refer to my brother with such familiarity.”

Fanny’s hand tightened on her fan, and she only took a calming breath for the sake of propriety. “It was announced that your brother had perished, Miss Gracely. Lord Havisham, my family…we all thought he had died. Your family has never once made it clear that Lord Havisham survived his ordeal. That was poorly done, Miss Gracely.” And I piteously mourned and wailed for you.

Simon stepped forward and bowed cordially to Fanny. “Pardon us for the confusion, miss,” he said politely. “Our family is not very popular within the ton; however, we have shocked a few with my reemergence. I did not die, but I was ill for a long time and recuperated at our family home in Scotland. Considering we had some connection in the past, I hope this explanation is sufficient for you.”

She stared at him, heart hammering. Sufficient?Some connection in the past? How unimportant he made it all seem. As if she had been a mere dalliance. Fanny flinched when she recalled how his mother had turned her away when she had turned up at their country home upon hearing the news of his death.

“You were nothing but a tart to my son, Miss Fairbanks. Please see yourself from our home and do not return.

“It is not enough, my lord,” she said hoarsely. How could it be?

His expression grew more austere. “I regret that I cannot offer more.”

His sister took the arm he offered, and his fiancée clasped the other.

“If you will excuse us, Miss Fairbanks, this drizzle might turn into a downpour at any moment. I must see my sister and Lady Katherine inside.”

“Of course,” she said from lips that felt numb.

He walked past her with his sister and his fiancée. Fanny was unable to watch them go.

“Miss Fairbanks,” he called.

Her pulse quickened. Taking a deep breath, she faced him, wiping the rain from her cheeks. “Yes, my lord?”

“It is wise to return inside. Even with this slight drizzle, you are likely to catch your death.”

“How kind you are, my lord,” his fiancée chirped brightly while his sister merely glared at Fanny.

She nodded and he continued on. This time she watched, feeling as if a piece of her soul had died. “Simon?”

Fanny swore it was a mere whisper, but he paused and turned around.

“Do you know who I am?”

He frowned. “At first, I did not, but I’ve since recalled that you are Miss Frances Fairbanks, Colin’s little sister. Colin and I were on respectful, friendly terms, and I shall call upon him to explain the fact that I am alive.”

Oh God. She never thought such pain was possible. “I see.” She lifted her chin. “Do you remember who I am to you?”

His eyes flared slightly, then his gaze narrowed on her. Vanessa was stiff with rage, and his fiancée frowned, looking back between Fanny and the viscount.

“You were no one to my brother, Miss Fairbanks. I cannot comprehend what you are implying in front of Lady Katherine, but it is crass and unbecoming.”

Fanny did not acknowledge that stinging rebuke but held Simon’s gaze, silently pleading with him to release them and come to her.

“You are not anyone to me, Miss Fairbanks. I bid you a pleasant evening.” He started to turn around, and then he jerked as if someone had slapped him. His head swiveled to look at her, and it was Fanny’s turn to jolt. There…in the piercing beauty of his eyes, she saw desire, laughter, and love. She saw the way he once had touched her, the way he had once loved her.

A shuddering breath left her when his lashes closed, and when their eyes met, it was as if he had blinked them away. Viscount Havisham walked away with his sister, leaving Fanny clutching her fan and silent tears streaking down her face to mingle with the rain.

Simon was alive. Truly breathtakingly alive. It was really quite overwhelming. She wanted to hide in the gardens. She was meant to gather her composure and then return inside, laughing and smiling as if her world had not shattered. But she could not.

Fanny did something she had not done since she learned of Simon’s death. She sat on the stone bench and wept. First, they were silent tears of fear and joy. Then they were a release of all the emotions she had kept buried inside. She’d had to be strong for the babe in her belly when she had heard the news of his death. Fanny had lifted her chin, reminded herself she was a Fairbanks and had lived as best as she could. Now she cried loud sounds that were part agony, part relief, and part joy. Then she laughed, and to her mind, there was a tinge of hysteria. Still, she laughed. He was alive.

Truly alive.