London April 1816
“What I cannot understand, Eve,” Cecil said, spearing a kippered herring on his breakfast plate, “is why you don’t wish to marry again. Since we arrived here for the start of the Season, I must have counted at least a dozen gentlemen who are eager to court you.”
Caught off guard by her brother’s unexpected choice of topics, Eve drew a sudden breath and regrettably wound up choking on her morning coffee. Blindly setting down her cup, she groped for her napkin and pressed it to her lips to stem her fit of coughing.
But if she hoped to avoid answering, she was doomed to disappointment, for Cecil waited with stubborn patience for her to be able to speak again, even to the point of ignoring his forked kipper.
“One marriage was enough, thank you,” she finally rasped.
“Seriously,” Cecil prodded with a frown, “why don’t you want to remarry?”
“If you were a woman, you might understand why a widow would cherish her independence,” Eve replied vaguely.
“But I’m not a woman—or a widow—so it doesn’t make any sense to me unless you explain.”
Holding back a smile at his earnestness, Eve busied herself with taking a bite of soft-boiled egg. Cecil regularly puzzled over the “inexplicable workings of the female mind.” But because it would be impossible to make her younger brother understand how she felt when he had no concept of what some married women endured, she wouldn’t even begin to attempt to explain.
Thankfully, though, Eve reminded herself with joyful relief, after six interminable years of marriage and one of widowhood, she finally had a glimpse of freedom and independence. And she would allow nothing and no one to spoil it. She would never, ever marry again.
“It does seem a contradiction,” Claire said in her soft, melodic voice, “since you are insisting that I marry.”
Eve cast her sister a sympathetic glance. “Because marriage is the only viable option for a young lady of quality. But I promise you, dearest, no one will force you to accept any man who is not your ideal match. We will find you a husband who can make you happy. You have my most solemn word on that.”
Claire gave a rueful sigh. “Doubtless you will, since you are such a splendid matchmaker. But it does seem a trifle ironic that you delight in arranging suitable matches for everyone but yourself.”
“I am perfectly content to remain a widow,” Eve insisted, managing a careless smile.
At her declaration, she spied the twins exchanging a long, meaningful glance. “Why this sudden interest in my remarriage?” she asked, her smile fading to a frown.
“Oh, no reason,” Claire replied, her tone perfectly innocent.
Eve’s gaze narrowed as she looked from one twin to the other. Her siblings were up to something, although what she couldn’t guess. Before she could probe further, however, she heard the sound of carriage wheels outside the breakfast-room windows.
Fortunately her brother’s attention was similarly diverted, and he turned his head to glance out.
“Look, there is Sir Alex at last!” Cecil exclaimed, tossing down his fork. Jumping up from the table with no thought whatever to gentlemanly behavior, Cecil crossed to the window for a better view. “I told you he intended to take residence today.”
With effort, Eve controlled the urge to leap from her chair and rush to the window herself. Her heart had suddenly quickened, but she refused to be seen gawking like her nineteen-year-old brother.
She and the twins were alone in the breakfast room, which overlooked Bedford Square. Sipping her coffee, Eve contented herself with glancing casually across the tree-shaded, grassy expanse that separated her elegant town house from the others in the square. A dashing curricle had just driven up and halted before the imposing mansion opposite hers.
“What a bang-up rig that is,” Cecil declared, admiring the red and yellow sporting vehicle. “I cannot wait to try it. Sir Alex promised to take me for a drive this week and let me handle the ribbons.”
Ignoring the curricle, Eve instead found her gaze riveted on the driver, who was dismounting and tossing the reins to his groom. Even from a distance she recognized Ryder’s tall, hard-muscled form. His shoulders filled out his bottle-green coat to perfection, while his buff breeches and polished Hessian boots molded his long, powerful legs.
It was her first sight of Alex Ryder in seven years, but there was no excuse for the sharp little leap her heart gave. Perhaps it was merely the surprise of seeing him dressed as a fine gentleman. When she’d known him on Cyrene, he had rarely worn a coat or cravat, just shirt and breeches, since the Mediterranean island was far warmer and much less formal than London.
Or perhaps her quickened pulse was due to anticipation at again encountering the handsome rebel who had at one time both fascinated and unnerved her.
Like his body, Ryder’s face was lean and hard, possessing a dangerous masculine appeal. It was the face of a man who didn’t cater to anyone—utterly compelling and perhaps a little sinful. What she remembered most about Ryder, however, was his smoldering intensity. He possessed a pair of breathtakingly intense eyes, the hue of dark mahogany, just like his hair. And the air of danger that surrounded him only added to his forceful impact.
Eve thought she had prepared herself to contend with Ryder again, but seeing him in the flesh was more of a jolt than she’d bargained for. And so were the unexpected feelings her remembrances of him aroused.
Silently scolding herself, Eve brought her coffee cup to her lips to hide her deplorable flush. She should have banished her memories of him long before now. It seemed a lifetime ago when they had been friends on Cyrene. A lifetime ago when she’d harbored a girlish infatuation for him during their final summer together.
Then again, she doubted that any woman could ever forget Alex Ryder. Certainly any woman who had ever been fiercely kissed by him, as she had.
Ryder had already created quite a stir in the short time he’d been in London. Mercenary turned hero. The papers were full of gossip and speculation about him.
It was strange to think of him as Sir Alex, though. He’d always been simply Ryder to her.
Even more strange, they were to be neighbors again, since he had hired the house directly across the square from hers for the Season. Workmen had been traipsing in and out all week in preparation for his arrival.
She suspected her brother had something to do with the odd coincidence, but she hadn’t wanted to seem overly interested in Ryder by asking about his plans.
“Do sit down, Cecil,” Eve told her brother as Ryder disappeared inside his house. “There will be plenty of time to admire Sir Alex and his curricle after you finish breakfast.”
Cecil gave an impatient sigh but complied with her request, much to Eve’s relief. She was well aware that Ryder was her brother’s idol.
Admittedly, Cecil’s obsessive case of hero worship worried her a little. A whirlwind of energy, he was capable of getting into enough mischief and mayhem on his own, without having a former soldier of fortune to pattern his behavior after. Cecil was here now only because he’d behaved so outrageously at Oxford that he’d been sent down for the rest of the term. In his defense, he had wanted to be with his twin when Claire made her bow to society—to offer her moral support and provide her with an escort if she couldn’t manage to find any beaux on her own.
It was exasperating, trying to rein in Cecil’s admirable but misguided chivalrous instincts, yet Eve had cherished having both her siblings with her during her final months of mourning.
She had lived quietly in Hertfordshire for the past year, not merely out of respect due her late husband Richard, but because she much preferred the freedom offered her in the countryside to the starched formality of town life. Then three weeks ago, she had opened the London house for the Season and moved in with the twins, to begin Claire’s society debut.
Richard’s widowed aunts—Drucilla, Baroness Wykfield, and Lady Beatrice Townley—had accompanied them. The aunts were elderly dowagers of exalted birth and fortune and influential enough with the ton to significantly aid Claire’s comeout.
Since their arrival, Eve had spent much of the time commissioning a wardrobe for Claire, sparing no expense to outfit her sister in the height of fashion in the hope that beautiful gowns would bolster the girl’s confidence when she faced the judgmental arbitrators of the ton. Additionally, Eve had found it necessary to refurbish her own wardrobe, since she’d finally put off her black and gray widow’s weeds.
She had also spent time renewing old acquaintances and was gratified to be welcomed back enthusiastically, more for Claire’s sake than for her own. Richard had been very popular with London’s fashionable set, for his public persona was far more congenial than his private one. Eve was planning on resuming her place in society in order to give her sister every possible chance at success.
At Claire’s pleading, however, they had forgone a formal court presentation. Instead, the aunts had held an elegant dinner earlier this week in her honor, so Claire was officially “out” now. They had not yet attended many evening functions, but invitations were pouring in, and Eve expected to have a full social calendar for the next several months.
She was listening with only half an ear when Cecil addressed his twin with his usual youthful enthusiasm. “Mr. Ryder has invited us to tour the London sights with him, Claire. He wants to see the Tower tomorrow. I mean, Sir Alex. I sometimes forget to call him by his new title.”
The girl brightened. “Oh, I would enjoy that immensely.”
“What would you enjoy?” Lady Wykfield questioned as she swept into the room. Tall, elegant, and silver-haired, Drucilla was the elder and more sharp-tongued of Richard’s two aunts. Trailing in her wake was Lady Beatrice—a softer, fluttery version of her sister.
Excerpted from Fever Dreams by Nicole Jordan. Copyright © 2006 by Nicole Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.