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Unforgivable

By:Joanna Chambers

Unforgivable
Joanna Chambers

Dedication

For my mum who passed on to me her love of romance novels. And for my dad, who is a true romantic.

Part One

Spring

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May …

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 18

Chapter One

May 1809

"I look awful," Rose said flatly.

The girl in the looking glass was gaunt, her cheeks hollow. She still carried the red, angry marks of her recent illness on her face and body. She was a stranger, and Rose hated looking at her.

"You look fine," Lottie said briskly, fastening the buttons at the back of Rose's gown. "And in a few months, you will look lovely. Your hair will grow, and my cook will fatten you up again, cara."

Rose eyed her tragically shorn hair, all cut off in the midst of raging fever. Lottie's hairdresser had come yesterday afternoon and had done his best to style her short locks into something resembling a fashionable cap of curls, but she still looked like an early Christian martyr with her sad, shadowed eyes. Like Joan of Arc about to go to the stake.

When the buttons were all done up, Lottie looked up and smiled at Rose in the mirror. That smile roused an odd mixture of emotions in Rose. Fondness, resentment and an aching sort of envy. Carlotta Neroni-Rose's father's mistress-was very beautiful. In fact, she was Rose's polar opposite.

A few months ago, Rose had hated Lottie, even though they'd never met. She'd resented the beautiful soprano who reportedly sang like an angel and looked like one too. The woman who'd drawn her father away from her. And then Rose had fallen ill.

Chicken pox. A childhood ailment she should have recovered from within a week or two. By the time Papa realised how ill she was, she was delirious with blood poisoning and the physicians couldn't crack the fever. When Papa went to Lottie, it was probably for his own comfort; however, the result had been that Lottie had descended upon the household like a whirlwind. The physicians were told in no uncertain terms to stop bleeding Rose, her bedchamber was cleaned and aired, and the kitchens were commandeered by Lottie's Italian cook. Under Lottie's unsentimental ministrations, Rose had, against all the odds, recovered.

That had been weeks and weeks ago, and still Lottie was here, still fussing over Rose like a mother hen. She was looking at Rose now with that warm expression of hers that made her look as though she cared for Rose. Which was absurd, really, given that Rose had given Lottie no reason even to like her.

When she'd woken from her fever to find Lottie in residence, she'd been less than gracious to her. She'd been a querulous invalid too, but Lottie had borne her ill temper with cheerful amusement. Only in the last few weeks, as Rose had grown stronger and emerged from her selfish infirmity, had she realised how much Lottie had done for her. She'd tried, then, feebly, to make up for her poor behaviour, aware that her own father hadn't had the patience to care for her as this woman had.

"What time is this visit to take place, cara?" Lottie asked now.

"Two o'clock."

"And are you sure you wish to go?" Lottie's expressive dark eyes clouded with concern. "I am sure your father would understand if you told him it was too soon."

"I don't mind," Rose said. The truth was that Papa was bubbling over with enthusiasm to make this visit, and though he might agree to postpone it today, he'd only keep on and on about going until she agreed. It was easier to do it now. There was no point putting off the inevitable. It wasn't as though she was going to start looking beautiful any time soon.

Lottie smiled. "It's true what he says about you, you know."

"What does who say?"

"Your papa. He says you're an adventurous little thing when you're not laid low."

Rose smiled, even though Lottie was wrong. This was nothing to do with being adventurous. She couldn't remember what that felt like anymore. This was about getting something unavoidable over with.

When Rose descended the stairs half an hour later, her father was waiting at the bottom, watching her with an indulgent expression he occasionally wore when he looked at her. It was an expression that made her realise he did love her in his way, though most of the time he didn't much notice her. She pasted on a wavery smile for him.

Lottie had done her best. Rose knew she looked neat and presentable, though she felt like a child. She was just five feet tall and thin as a rake. Her height hadn't troubled her when she was plumper, but now that she was so thin, she knew she looked very, very young. It was even worse without her clothes. She hated her jutting hipbones and her nonexistent breasts; hated that she could see her ribs. She tried to eat the food that Lottie pressed on her: rich roast meats, creamy potatoes, toothsome puddings swimming in custard. But although her appetite had improved, it was still tiny.

Worse than that, though, worse than anything, was her face. Gaunt and drawn. And those marks. The worst one was the scab on her left eyelid that still hadn't gone and that made her eye look droopy. She'd tried to cover it with powder, but that had only made it look worse.

When she stared at herself in the mirror, she felt an awful, yawning hollowness in her stomach. She supposed the feeling was horror.

She wished she didn't have to meet Viscount Waite looking like this. He couldn't possibly find her the least bit attractive.

"Rosebud," Papa said as she descended the last step. "You look lovely, my dear."

His eyes shone with sincerity, and she realised he believed it. He must be blind, but then perhaps all papas were.

"Ready?" he asked. She smiled and nodded, not trusting herself to speak. The whole situation was so bizarre that she was having difficulty believing it was really happening. A week ago, she'd had no thoughts of anything but trying to get better. Now she was to meet, for the first time, the man who might turn out to be her husband.

She hadn't been out much since her illness, and it felt strange. She lifted the hem of her new gown carefully as she descended the steps from the front door to the street below. She leaned on her father in a way she never used to. He patted the hand that rested on his arm, and the small, thoughtless gesture made her happy and sad all at once. She'd grown up knowing she loved her father more than he loved her. Even today, his smiles and excitement were not really, not wholly, about her. Once married, she would be his responsibility no longer. He would be free.

The carriage was waiting at the bottom of the steps, and Papa handed her in, climbing in behind her and settling himself on the bench opposite. He thumped the ceiling with his cane, and the carriage lurched forward. He fiddled with his gloves, seeming uncharacteristically nervous. So unlike the father she knew. Miles Davenport was the most confident, debonair and charming man in England. But the most charming man in England had a serious look about him now. A serious look that he tried to temper with a smile.

This was another familiar expression. He usually wore it when he was about to leave her for a while. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes-the same grey eyes he had bequeathed to her-were a little anxious.

He leaned forward and took her small hands in his larger ones. "You needn't have him if you don't like him, Rosebud."

Rose looked at their linked hands. Papa ducked his head, looking up to intercept her downcast gaze. "I won't deny I want to see you settled. And this would be a brilliant match for you. But I won't force you to marry against your will."

"I know, Papa," she replied. But she knew too that her father had his heart set on this match. And besides that, she had to think practically. She was well aw

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