PROLOGUE

London, 1813

Golden sunlight streamed in through the picturesque stained glass windows, painting dazzling flecks of light upon the pale white interior of the crowded church. Yellow lilies and vibrant roses adorned the narrow pathway leading to the sacrosanct alter. And as a beauty in white slowly descended down the aisle, the vision was nearly flawless. The only thing missing from the hallowed union of love on that warm afternoon in June…was the groom.

Soft words reverberated throughout the small church, muttering words like 'discarded' and 'abandoned'. And though the bride herself knew these words to be of utmost truth, her soul screamed with a denial that left her trembling. Swallowing back tears, the dark-haired beauty met the gaze of her brother—the best man in this farce that was being dubbed her wedding. She could sense his fury, his absolute hatred of the man who had left his sibling standing heartbroken at the alter. But he held it inside, maintaining his composure for his wife—the sister of the missing groom.

Even she, however, appeared to share her husbands vehement sentiments.

But anger was not the only emotion that played across their silent features. Regret, concern, pity; the sadness that glittered in their eyes told her all that she needed to know. But she voiced her question nonetheless, needing to hear what her heart refused to believe. "He is not coming?"

A long pause followed her query, and for several seconds, Francesca was certain that neither her brother nor his wife were going to answer her question.

However, her brother did—with a curt nod that cut her to the very soul. Strangling on a sharp breath, she turned her face away, hoping that the sweeping brim of her wedding veil would hide her agony from view. It was meant to have been a day of joy, of revelry. And instead, it would be a day of sorrow. She had been deserted. And with the crushed remains of her heart lay the broken fragments of her childish dreams.

The truth was undeniable Miss Francesca Kennedy had been abandoned on her wedding day. And the tragedy of it was soul crushing.

But there was a time and place for tears. And though they threatened to pour forth unheeded at any moment, she refused to let the whispering onlookers of the ton witness her humiliating fall from grace. With a strength she had never before previously possessed, she turned her attention towards the guests, flashing them a practiced smile before she spoke in a voice not her own, "It appears that there shall be no wedding, after all. I do apologize for forcing everyone from their beds so early for nothing. However, all is not lost. A lovely reception awaits at Crafton House. And though our groom has decided it unworthy of his presence, I do hope the rest of you shall still attend." Swallowing convulsively, she forced herself to plod on, "The invitation still stands. Wedding or not."

Clearly uncertain of what sort of reaction was appropriate under such abnormal circumstances, the guests remained silent, gaping at her as if she had completely lost her wits.

It was her brother Simon who came to her rescue, shooing the crowd away with a voice booming with authority. "You heard her. Out. We will see you at Crafton House within the hour."

One order from Simon and the guests were gone. No one defied the orders of Viscount Crafton. And for that, Francesca was eternally grateful. Moving towards the now empty pews, she collapsed onto the wooden surface, finally allowing the tremors to overtake her. She could feel the gaze of her brother and his wife and though she knew they desired her reassurance, she found herself entirely incapable of speech.

She wouldn't look up--couldn't. For the pity that would surely mar their features would be enough to destroy her. Her strength was crumbling rapidly. And at any moment, she was likely to break.

Flinching at the small hand that touched her shoulder, she trembled. She wanted to flee from the harsh claws of reality, run into the darkness and never look back. But her sister-in-law's soft voice refused to let her slip into the silent haven of nothingness that so beguilingly beckoned her. "Francesca, darling," Anne murmured, "I am so sorry."

Her voice was awash with sympathy and the unyielding love that accompanied her words only broke Francesca's heart more. How could they ever imagine that their offers of comfort did nothing more but tear the gaping hole in her soul even wider? She longed for silence, for solitude. But she knew that Simon and Anne would never allow it.

Lifting her head to brush away a cold tear, she bit her lip, "I just…don't understand. Everything was fine. Perfectly normal. I saw him last evening. Last bloody evening." She caught Anne's gaze, her own glinting with a sudden unrelenting desperation, "What could have possibly changed in a matter of hours?" She paused to take a breath, hoping that the quick inhalation of air would relieve the painful constriction in her throat. But just as she thought she had at last regained her composure, the sobs escaped, leaving her rocking back in forth in time to her agonized cries. "I loved him," she moaned, "I loved him and it wasn't enough. It was never enough."

Her tears seemed to flow forth for hours, while in actuality, she knew it had only been a matter of minutes. And though she knew she should stifle her overwhelming emotions, the passionate display comforted her in a way that no human could. Her sobs were her lament. And she would sing of her agony until the euphoric hands of numbness took over.

Anne sat beside her then, wrapping her arms around Francesca's petite frame and pulling her into a tender embrace. But though she murmured tender words of comfort, it was clear that she knew not what to say. But it mattered little, for her husband had quite a bit to say. Clenching his fists with the strength of a caveman, he pressed his lips together, "I'll kill the bastard."

"No!" Both Francesca and Anne cried out in unison. But it was Francesca who leapt from her seat and clutched Simon by his crisp lapels, "You will not lay a finger on him, Simon. Do you understand me?"

"I will not stand by and let the man who broke my sister's heart remain unscathed. I plan to see his bloody liver ripped out through his mouth—brother-in-law or not."

"Simon," Anne said gently, throwing a weary glance towards Francesca, "Be reasonable."

"I am being reasonable," he snapped. "The bastard deserves to be punished."

"Not by you," Francesca said firmly, brown eyes flashing liquid fire, "It is not your place to seek repentance for his crimes."

"Nor is it your place to defend his honor!" he retorted.

"He is my fiancé!"

"Not anymore he isn't." Simon hissed. However, when his sister flinched with pain, he faltered, his features contorting into that of regret. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that, Francesca. Please, don't—"

She held up a hand, stopping him before he could continue. "You're right, in any case. He isn't my fiancé anymore. And he certainly isn't my husband. But it is my wedding. And though you may seek revenge, it was my heart that was broken. Not yours. And if you hurt him, I swear unto God that I will never forgive you. Do you understand me, Simon? I need your promise."

He scowled, "I won't promise that, Francesca."

"Yes… Yes, Simon, you will." She said firmly. "Because you love me. And you know that if you hurt him in any way, you will be hurting me, as well. This afternoon has been filled with enough agony. Do not make it worse. Do not humiliate me any further. He left me. But I will move on. Because I am strong. But I can only do that if I know that you will keep your violent impulses to yourself. Promise me, Simon. Promise me, or I promise you that defying this one simply request will destroy whatever bond we share irrevocably."

Her gaze bore into his and the fierceness that he saw reflected there was undeniable. She meant her words. If Simon did not heed her…he would lose her. And nothing in the world terrified him more. This was a promise he had to make. Even at the cost of his own pride. Swallowing past the taste of disgust on the tip of his tongue, he nodded curtly, "I promise I will not hurt him."

That—evidently—was enough for Francesca. "Good."

Stepping away from Simon, she moved towards the double doors leading outside, her spine straight as she caught the concerned gazes of her brother and his wife. "Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to take the phaeton, go home, and cry myself to sleep. Give my apologies to our guests. But I'm afraid I will not be able to attend tonight. I'm certain everyone will understand why."

And with those final, ominous words, Francesca shoved the doors of the church open and faded into the distance, leaving the remnants of her shattered heart behind without even a second glance.