Adelina looked out of the window. She could see the glinting Thames in the distance, winking like a mirror under the darkening heavens. Her stomach cramped, bringing her back to the moment. It was nerves, she knew. She looked away from the window and back into the bedchamber, feeling a strange mix of fear and emptiness.
“I don’t want to be here.”
She had dreaded the journey to London. If it weren’t for the possibility of seeing Minette, her best friend, she would have stayed at the country house, Insfield Manor, rather than travel to the city. Everything in it terrified her now.
She turned to ring the bell, summoning her maidservant. Dark honey-coloured curls fell about her shoulders, and she tucked them behind her ear, even that small movement seeming to demand too much of her already-taxed strength. She was so tired. She looked around the room. It was tidy—her new maidservant did an excellent job with that, as with everything. She had been glad when her father insisted on dismissing all the original staff—though with good remuneration—following the incident that had kept her from London for three years.
She didn’t want to think about it, and it was easier if there was nobody to remember it.
“My lady?” her maid, Becca, called as she came in. Adelina looked up from the dressing-table.
“Good evening, Becca. If you could help me dress? And I would like my hair arranged too if you please.”
“Of course, my lady!” Becca agreed. She was younger than Adelina, who was four-and-twenty, and had a soft, pleasant face. “I’ll do ringlets if you like. They are so fashionable.”
Adelina lifted a shoulder. “I will be pleased if you style it how you deem suitable.” She herself had no interest in what it would look like—provided it looked sufficiently good for others not to notice her. She just wanted people to leave her alone.
She had been away from London for three years, following a successful Season here when she was one-and-twenty: a little too successful, she thought now. She was courted by a young man of whom her father heartily approved. Her father was content, and she, if she had misgivings, had hidden them even from herself. And then the young man had come to the house, drunk and insensible, and tried to force himself on her.
She pushed the thought away. She was not going to think of that—not ever again. She was grateful that, finally, she didn’t think of it often. There could be months at a stretch when he never entered her mind. It was only being back in London that brought all that to her thoughts. She felt so small just being here. She remembered how vulnerable she was, how helpless she had felt. And she hated those memories.
“I don’t want to do this.”
“Sorry, my lady?” her maid asked.
“I was thinking of something,” Adelina replied swiftly. “If you could fetch my cloak?”
“Of course, my lady. It’s in the wardrobe.”
Adelina waited for her maid to leave the room before going to sit down at the dressing table. She studied her face by the light of the candles there. Her long honey-dark curls hung about her face, which was oval, her cheekbones hard under her skin. She had lost a lot of weight in the last three years, and she could see the tight, bitter lines that those years had carved into her face. She looked into her eyes. Framed with dark lashes, a gentle brown colour, they didn’t look angry or bitter. They just looked scared.
Adelina drew a deep breath. She wasn’t scared. She was just indifferent—a tired, weary indifference that she knew she could not change. She had made so many changes—everything, from the style of her hair to her routine and pastimes. She didn’t want any trace of Adelina left, because Adelina had been hurt and so she must change.
“Here, my lady. Shall I style your hair?”
Adelina nodded. “Yes. Please.”
She waited while Becca heated the curling-tongs. She had never worn her hair ringleted before, but if it was fashionable, that was sufficient. Doing something different to what she had done in the past was also no bad thing—she had worn soft chignons with face-framing waves, but she’d taken lately to a severe bun. She hadn’t tried the fashionable curls.
While she waited for the tongs to heat up in the fire, Becca brushed Adelina’s hair. Adelina could smell the warm scent as she started to curl her hair, the curls still hot as she let them drop back against her neck. She watched her reflection with only a bare hint of interest in what she looked like. She could see a pale, elegant face with a darker, elegant hairstyle looking at her, and that was enough. Nobody in society would really notice her—she looked fashionable and bland enough to blend in, at least in her own assessment.
“There, my lady. Now, shall I fetch your purse?”
“I’ll fetch it. Thank you, Becca,” Adelina said softly. She was fond enough of Becca, but she tried to maintain formality with everybody. She stood and went to the door, her white muslin gown with its patterns of blue flowers in tiny print. It was fashionable, too, and impersonal—just like her hair. She didn’t want to be here.
She went to the drawing room. It was empty, the fire burning and the light from the windows shining in as the sky darkened to evening. Her drawstring bag was lying on the chair by the fire where she’d left it and she picked it up—the pale blue colour matched her dress—and hurried into the hallway. Her shawl was already about her shoulders—it was still springtime and too cold to venture about even indoors without a shawl of some kind. It was too cold for parties.
“Daughter?” her father greeted as she went downstairs to the hallway. He was already waiting to escort her, a black top-hat making his already-intimidating height seem taller. “You are ready?”
“I am, Papa.” She didn’t look up. Her father must know how hard this was for her. She still felt residually angry with him for insisting she do this. She knew he had her needs at heart—he was a loving father. But she was sure he could not understand how much she was suffering, being here.
“Well, then,” he said. “We must hurry. The ball will be starting punctually—it always does.”
Adelina nodded. She felt her stomach twist so sharply she could barely find words. She didn’t want to remember that the ball was a private ball for Valentine’s Day, organised for young people to meet one another, because she didn’t want to think about meeting any young people. Or anybody at all, for that matter. She wanted to run away from England and change her name and start another life.
But she couldn’t, because Father was here and he insisted, and so she let him open the door for her and she walked down the steps and to the waiting coach.
Adelina stood in the doorway. The ball was underway, but she didn’t want to take part. She breathed in, noticing the scents of perfume and pomade, mixed with the warm smells of candles and the less fragrant smells of wine and whisky. She felt her heart thump. She didn’t want to be here, and she looked around the room, seeking a door. Ladies and gentlemen danced to the music of a small group of dark-suited musicians, and at the refreshments-table people stood, drank, and chatted. She could see no door besides the one through which she had entered the room.
“My lady. A drink?”
Adelina looked over at the crimson-clad footman who bore a tray of glasses. She shook her head.
“No, thank you,” she said. Her mouth was dry, but she didn’t particularly want to stand about sipping anything—she would feel obliged to try and talk to the people at the table, and she didn’t want to talk to anybody. She scanned the room, but she could not see her friend, Minette, even though she had said she would attend.
I can’t do this.
She walked to the other side of the room. Her father was near the door, chatting to a group of friends. She had hung back when they had come over, and her father, who understood her reluctance, had not tried too hard to include her. She slipped away, searching for a door or some means of getting outside.
The room was warm—not overly-hot, but the press of people and the chandeliers with their candles made it much warmer than it had been outside. Adelina welcomed the idea of going outside—it was oppressive in here and besides, there were no chairs, and her legs were weary. She had been so long at the estate, isolated from people and suffering from a weary, draining sickness that she already felt quite exhausted by the noise, the press of people and the demands of standing still.
“There’s a door.”
She reached the long wall of the ballroom and there, in the white-painted wall with its gilded mouldings, she found a wide door. It led out onto a terrace and when she pushed it, the door swung open. She stepped outside into the fragrant evening.
Adelina let the door shut behind her and leaned back against the wall. The evening was cool; the sky still pale over the distant hills, and glowed a soft violet the gentle garden. Their host had a big manor on the edge of the city, and there was a garden attached to it—a rare thing for London houses, where there was barely enough space, usually, for even a few square feet of garden between two tight-packed townhouses. She breathed deeply, the dew-scented air cooling her lungs.
The garden was beautiful. Brightly coloured borders surrounded a square of lawn at the foot of the terrace. It was not fully springtime yet, but already one could see pinks, daisies, and pansies flourishing in the garden. The lawn was already green again, too, and the trees that grew by the wall were riotous with pale green leaves.
Adelina looked around. She was pleased she had come out here—it was so much better outside. She breathed in again, the cool smell of the air very refreshing. It was icy outside, the air still crisp and cold, but she wanted to stay here at least a little longer. Her hands were chilly—so much so that she could barely move the fingers. Her shawl covered her shoulders, but even they were starting to feel the coldness, the thin fabric of her dress with its translucent puff-sleeves barely enough to keep the cold away.
She went to the door, considering going back inside. An idea was starting to form in her mind—if she couldn’t bear the ball, she’d take the coach home. Their carriage was waiting, and if she could convince Father to let her return, she could ask the coachman to drive her. There was no reason for her not to travel unaccompanied in their own transport.
She took a breath and went back into the ballroom. The sudden noise felt oppressive—the musicians were still playing, and people talked and laughed at even louder volume than before. She felt exhausted by the noise, just standing here.
“Adelina?” a voice called, insistent. “Adelina! I wondered where you were.”
Adelina felt her eyes widen with surprise as her friend, Minette Lowborough, came through the crowd towards her, dressed in a pink gown. She had not known she was here. She opened her arms as Minette embraced her fondly, and she felt her heart soften. She hadn’t realised until she saw her how upset she’d been by Minette not attending as she’d promised.
“Adelina!” Minette said, looking into her eyes. They were both tall and of a height, though Adelina was a half-inch or so taller. She looked at her friend, who had brown hair arranged softly around her face, her hazel eyes gentle. “I looked everywhere. I am so sorry—the coach was stuck for a while. We had to wait for the coachman to fix the wheel, but now we’re here. I’m pleased to see you!”
Adelina smiled. “I’m glad too, Minette.” She looked at her friend fondly. She had not seen her for so long. Minette stayed permanently in London. Her father was a baron, but also had some important business connections in the merchant world and he preferred to stay in London to supervise the investments. Minette loved London, too, and Adelina couldn’t imagine her visiting the countryside for long, though she had visited Adelina when they were both much younger.
“It’s warm in here,” Minette said. She hadn’t mentioned anything—the fear Adelina might be feeling, the fact that this was the first time they’d met at a ball—and Adelina wanted to hug her. It was so good that her friend knew how much she needed to forget about her past.
“It is,” Adelina murmured. She stepped back, grateful that there was a chair nearby. She really did feel lightheaded and tired. She sank down onto the cushion, head pounding.
“Adelina?” Minette’s concerned voice reached her through the pounding of her own head. “Are you feeling well…? Shall I get you anything…?”
“I’m quite well,” Adelina whispered, though in truth she didn’t feel it. She was dizzy and disorientated and she couldn’t bear much more of the noise.
“I’ll stay here, then,” Minette said quickly. “I wish it wasn’t so hot in here—maybe someone should open the doors.”
Adelina looked up, watching Minette, who was already striding to the doors, beckoning to a nearby footman to open them. She wanted to smile. Her friend was like that—she tended to take charge of every situation and had an unfailingly down-to-earth side. Adelina shook her head.
“It’s all right,” she said to Minette, when she returned. “I don’t want everyone to get cold. I will feel better soon.”
“Good,” Minette said quickly. “Because there are some awfully nice-looking fellows over there, and I do hope we are going to get a dance or two with one or two of them.”
“Minette!” Adelina laughed, feeling almost shocked at her friend’s openness. Minette grinned.
“Well, why not? One or two of them are fine-looking. Look. One of them is watching us.”
Adelina blushed, looking sharply away. She could see a man in a red coat watching them, just as Minette had said. He was on the other side of the ballroom, but she could see that he was handsome, with a thin face and big soulful eyes. She saw Minette blush and smile shyly.
Adelina looked up at her. “Minette, I don’t want to make you stay here with me. Let me go find Papa. I’ll be quite all right. You go and get some refreshment—I will be willing to bet that the officer who was staring at us goes over there a few seconds later too.”
“Adelina!” Minette giggled. “Well, I might,” she added quite speculatively. She looked at Adelina and she could see that her friend didn’t want her to sit here by herself.
“I’ll be quite all right, I promise.” Adeline looked up at her, speaking firmly. She saw Minette look hesitantly over at the men by the door, and then her friend took her hand.
“I’ll be right over there,” she said. “And please, come and join me if you wish to.”
Adelina nodded. “I will,” she promised. She saw Minette glance over at the men again. The officer in the red uniform was watching her. She smiled to herself, enjoying her friend’s evident delight.
She wished she could feel like that herself.
She sat where she was for a moment, as people stood around and talked and, over at the refreshments table, Minette took a glass of cordial, laughing and joking with people around her. She was pleased her friend was enjoying herself.
She wasn’t personally enjoying the evening at all.
Adelina took a deep breath. She had come to the ball, which had been a major challenge. She’d done it, and that was all she could expect herself to do. She could see no reason behind doing more.
She stood and went across the room to find her father.
Lord Insfield was where she had thought he would be—standing at the back of the hall with the same friends he’d been talking with when they arrived. He looked involved, and Adelina hesitated to approach. About eight people surrounded him, and she didn’t want to approach such a large group. He was clearly enjoying the ball and unlikely to stop talking for another hour at least.
Maybe I should take the coach.
Her father would be concerned, but if she left a word with the hostess, explaining that she was unwell—which was true—then she would explain to Lord Insfield.
Taking a deep breath, Adelina went to the door. Their hostess was near the entrance, and it didn’t take long to get her attention.
“Of course, my dear,” Lady Elway said kindly when she’d told her she was feeling sick and wanted to return to her house. “And I’ll explain to your father.”
“Thank you,” Adelina said in a small voice. She curtseyed, feeling grateful. She smiled at the hostess and hurried on.
Outside, the hallway was silent. Adelina stood there, breathing in the warm air, and feeling her heart thud. She hadn’t realised how terrifying it had been until she finally managed to get out. She looked around, the white walls seeming bright and the white marble floor almost hurting her eyes. It was so highly polished.
She went to the front entrance, which was a tall, ornate doorway with brass handles. The butler had admitted them, and Adelina pushed the door, relieved to see she could budge it without assistance. She reached over to the coatrack to get her cloak and remembered something—the butler had taken her cloak and Father’s coat. She had no idea where he’d put them.
“I’ll have to find him.”
She took another deep breath. The house was large, and she had no idea where to find the butler. It was unconventional to go wandering around in a host’s house without permission, trying to find their butler. But she reminded herself she did have a reason. She hesitated, wondering if it made any sense to go blundering into Lady Elway’s house, but at the same time, the evening was too cold to go without warm coverings.
She tiptoed to a door that opened into another hallway and walked along.
The dark-walled hallway she was in, unlike the ornate marble of the entrance, had a carpeted wooden floor. She breathed in, smelling air that smelt a little of smoke—candles lit the way down the hallway, and it had a friendly, welcoming air.
“He must be here somewhere.”
She wandered on, glancing about. She felt a little nervous and slowed her steps, wishing that the butler would just come in so that she could ask him about the cloaks. She did not feel comfortable trespassing in someone else’s house—she might be a guest, but she didn’t have permission to come in here.
She walked toward the end of the hallway. All she had to do was check in all the rooms, and if the butler wasn’t there, she’d turn around and go back to the ballroom. One of the footmen would know where he was and be able to find her cloak. She would just check in the room in front of her, and then go to the ballroom.
Adeline leapt up with fright, heart racing. Someone was behind her. She whirled to face him, heart beating with terror, hands cold with sweat. She was about to scream, fear overriding every other instinct, when she looked at his face.
He was a tall man, with a slim face and a shy look, his gentle eyes big and dark with little hazel spots. He was about arm’s length from her, and he bowed apologetically.
“My lady,” he said again. “I am so sorry I startled you. I didn’t mean to. I was looking for my book.”
She saw him smile shyly and she felt her terror subside, giving way to interest. She looked up at him without knowing what to say and he cleared his throat and she felt herself warm towards him. She felt oddly drawn to this dark-haired young man with his gentle smile and she waited in the hallway, interested to see what he would do next.
Jeremy looked at the lady before him in surprise. He had never seen anybody so lovely—her curls framing her sweet face, her cheeks flushed. She looked distressed, though, and his delight in seeing her turned swiftly to guilt.
“I’m so sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t mean to affright you. I didn’t expect anyone to be here.”
She was still looking at him with panic, and he felt some confusion. He hadn’t meant to scare her so badly.
“Please, my lady,” he said, bowing low. “Accept my apology. I will go, if you are frightened,” he added, standing from his bow and taking a few steps back.
She took a deep breath and seemed to calm down. He felt relief flood through him, He really hadn’t meant to be so frightening.
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t expect to bump into anyone.” She looked around the hallway, though she didn’t seem as scared as she had before. “I was looking for my cloak.”
He had to smile. She was so gentle, so sweet. He had spent an evening feeling terribly shouldered out of the group, unable to really talk to or connect with anyone—and here, in the hallway outside the ballroom, he bumped into someone who didn’t look at him with pity or blankness. She was smiling at him, and her eyes were nervous but also intrigued. He cleared his throat.
“May I help you look for it?” he asked formally
She swallowed hard, seeming nervous. Her eyes darted to the room—he thought it was an anteroom of some sort, he didn’t know—and then in his direction. “No. Thank you, my lord.”
He lifted a shoulder in a shrug. He was a baron, but it felt odd to have her address him as “my lord.” In the navy, they referred to him by his naval rank. It was just one of the things that was strange about being back in London again.
“Well, then,” he said. “Since we are both unsuccessful in our hunt for whatever we seek, perhaps I could escort you to the ballroom? You must be cold here.” A filmy shawl covered her shoulders. He doubted that it kept her particularly warm.
“My lord…” she paused, reddening. “Will people not look at us and think it’s improper?”
“Oh!” He went red just thinking of it. “Sorry. I didn’t think of that. Forgive me…I am not used to company nowadays.”
“Me neither.” She grinned.
He heard footsteps. Without knowing what to do, he stepped back and into the darkened room. He heard her gasp, and then heard someone talking.
“My lady. May I help? Are you lost?”
“Oh! Please, I was looking for my cloak. You took it earlier—I wanted to go outside but didn’t know where you had put the cloaks.”
“My lady. I apologise. They are in this anteroom. I’ll fetch your cloak for you directly.” The man sounded apologetic. Jeremy guessed he was a servant, a footman. He couldn’t remember noticing who’d taken his coat at the door—he was too tired to pay much attention to such things.
“Thank you,” the young woman said in a small voice. “It’s a grey one.”
“Of course, my lady. Right away.”
He heard the man’s footsteps on the floor, and then a few moments later, he heard his voice again.
“Here you are, my lady.”
“Thank you so much!”
Jeremy hid where he was, and after a second or two, he heard the footsteps retreat. He drew a breath and risked sticking his head out of the doorway. He almost expected that the young lady would have gone to the ballroom—there was no reason for her to stay, having retrieved what she came to find. But when he stepped out, she was still there. He felt a flush of delight.
“The butler came out. He found my cloak.”
“I see,” he said. He noticed she had the article of clothing in one arm, a dove-grey velvet bundle. He felt his heart ache with the sweetness she seemed to radiate.
“Well, then,” she said carefully. “I suppose I ought to return.”
“Yes,” he said, rather reluctant. “I have an idea. How about you return first, and then I will follow you after a few minutes. That way, nobody can see anything untoward or say anything about us.” He hadn’t given the problem much thought, but as the plan came from his lips, he had to think it was a good one. He saw relief dawn on her face.
“Thank you. I’ll go in now and you will follow in a few minutes. Three minutes? Do you promise?”
He took a deep breath. “On my honour, I promise.” He saw her eyes brighten. “I will wait here for exactly three minutes and then return. Nobody will even notice me entering.”
She frowned. He wondered what she was thinking about. He hoped she believed him, and he waited a moment, tense, wondering what she would say. After a moment, she tilted her head.
“As you say.”
He saw her turn, and his curious nature overcame him, winning out past the awkward silence and the manners he tried to remember. “My lady?” he said hastily. “May I ask your name?”
She looked frightened and he swore inwardly. He’d managed to win her trust, and now he had scared her! He hated himself at that moment—his clumsy manners, his insensitivity. But she didn’t run away and that surprised him.
“I am the daughter of the Earl of Insfield,” she said quickly. She smiled and he grinned back, sheer relief fizzing through his body, brighter and more intense than any he could remember.
“I am honoured to meet you,” he said. He would have offered his name, but the beautiful girl had already turned and walked into the entrance foyer. He stood where he was, feeling flushed and elated.
He knew he would recall that name. Insfield. He was going to make inquiries. He had to find out who she was. This would not be the only time he’d have a chance of meeting her. He couldn’t let himself walk away without at least finding out what her first name was.
He sighed. He was being a fool. The poor lady—what was she going to think if he hounded her just because they’d exchanged a few sentences? All the same, he couldn’t help the thought that he’d love to see her again.
“I should be careful not to make her fearful of me.”
She already seemed nervous, and he didn’t want to scare her still further.
He checked his watch, remembering that he’d promised. He’d stay out of the ballroom for three minutes. He felt the cold metal of the watch in his fingers as he took it from his pocket and checked the time. He would wait here for exactly three turns of the minute hand and then go in to join her.
He took a deep breath. Let it out slowly, thinking, as he did, of his plan to find out who she was. He could, of course, approach her directly and offer his name—that would be the politest. But what if he offended her? If she had wished to introduce herself fully, she could have done so already.
He sighed again. The best thing he could do was ask someone. It was a pity that, since being away in the navy for so long, he didn’t know many people in London. He hadn’t recognized anyone at the ball, and he’d been out of society so long that he’d forgotten how to converse and chit-chat. It all seemed a bit tedious. Why did people stand around and talk about the weather when this could be their last day on the planet? Having lived a life where death was so often nearby, he couldn’t help but see societal rules as petty.
He grinned. He might be impatient with society, but he had made a promise to a young lady, and that wasn’t petty or silly. He could see how important rules like that were to her, and he couldn’t help but take it seriously, because she did.
He went slowly to the end of the hallway, pausing in the entrance. He had gone out of the ballroom, not because it was essential to find his gloves, but because he had felt uncomfortable in there. He hesitated to go inside, but at the same time, he knew the earl’s daughter was in there.
He took a breath and followed her into the ballroom.
The heat hit him like a wave when he walked in—it was warmer there than in the entrance way with its marble paving—and then the pressing noise of people’s conversation followed. He had forgotten how loud people were! There were only around forty people—it was a fair size, even for a ball in London—and he was so unused to large gatherings of talking people that he winced, feeling under siege. He looked around for a door, but then recalled he was here for a reason.
He had to find the identity of the mysterious lady.
He grinned. He had to do a task, and that felt familiar and good to him. He was used to completing tasks.
He went to stand with the crowd of people around the refreshments table to see how he could find the identity of the mysterious lady.
“When a Lady Meets Her Valentine” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After years of isolation following a scandal and a great heartbreak, Lady Adelina Jacob, returns to London. With Valentine’s Day approaching, her father gently insists that she makes a comeback to society. Her entire life and luck are about to change when she follows her father’s advice and reluctantly attends a ball. There, she meets a navy officer who will make her feel like her heart is beating for the very first time…
Will Adelina be able to put her painful past behind and give love a second chance?
What Jeremy Martlet, Baron of Insfield, could never expect, was that not too long after returning from the sea, he would meet the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. However, everything collapses when he sends a Valentine card to Adelina and immediately gets rejected because of his surname; a name that caused Adelina years of pain and tears…
If only he could somehow prove his heart’s true colours…
When Jeremy convinces Adelina of his pure intentions, they both feel that a sweet fairytale has just begun. Little did they know that Adelina’s father would never approve of their union, making their hearts break into millions of pieces. Will Adelina and Jeremy find a way to save their love and all of their dreams? Or will fate sink them into an eternal darkness?
“When a Lady Meets Her Valentine” is a historical romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.