Annalise was paralyzed with shock. Blake, Lord Payne, her husband, was standing right in front of her, in the middle of the ballroom, on the night of her betrothal to another man. Then his eyes glazed over and he fell to his knees. The next moment all her thoughts disappeared and she ran toward him.

Blake was alive. He was here.

She fell to her knees and caught his heavy body against hers.

“Doctor! Bring me a doctor, now!” Annalise yelled as she tried unsuccessfully to keep her husband upright.

“Here, let me,” the steady voice of her betrothed sounded from behind. He knelt beside her, took Blake’s weight off her and laid him gently on the floor.

In her haste and worry over Blake, she had completely forgotten about Kensington.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” she whispered. Annalise felt his warm hand settle on her shoulder and squeeze her gently in the gesture of support.

Kensington felt Blake’s pulse and checked his body for any outward signs of injury. He frowned, and Annalise grew frantic with worry.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said in a calm voice. “By all appearances, he is all right. However, we won’t know for sure until the doctor arrives.”

Annalise nodded and turned her head to study her husband’s face. He looked different. So much so, in fact, that she would have passed him in a crowd. She wouldn’t have recognized him now either, if it hadn’t called her name. He said it the same way he used to do when they were courting. In the way that caused goosebumps on her skin. His velvety smooth voice still made her foolish heart leap in delight. Now, as she sat there studying his face, she reflected that perhaps his voice played a major part in her instant infatuation with him.

However, his voice was perhaps the only thing recognizable in him. His face was lean and dark. Red spots adorned the crests of his cheeks and nose, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors, under the sun or against the wind. His nose was crooked, as if it’d been broken and not properly set one too many times. His face was hard and a few lines had settled over his forehead and around his mouth. What has he gone through? Where has he been for over a year to make him look so different?

“He seems to just have fainted,” Kensington stated beside her, successfully pulling her out of her thoughts. “Probably the excitement of coming home and—”

“And seeing his wife getting betrothed to another man?” Annalise looked up at the duke with tear-filled eyes. Her lower lip protruded and quivered as she tried to hold to her tears.

“It is not your fault,” he whispered. “We don’t know what had befallen him before his return.” He turned to the assembled crowd as he stood. “I need a couple of gentlemen who would be kind enough to help transport Lord Payne to his bed.”

Two gentlemen stepped forward instantly. Annalise recognized Blake’s long-time friend, Jarvis, Lord St. John and his cousin, Marcus, the current Lord Payne. Or should she say the former Lord Payne and the current heir presumptive, Lord Boyle? This all was too confusing.

The gentlemen hoisted Blake up and carried him through the parting crowd and up to the second floor. Annalise followed in their wake.

They carried him into the master’s bedchamber, Lord Boyle insisted he should take his rightful bed.

“Annalise.” Kensington turned to her and gave her a look that meant he was about to say something she wouldn’t like and he knew it. “I think you should leave. We shall need to undress him and see if there are any injuries I’ve missed and then wash him and prep him for a doctor’s visit.”

“Why do I need to leave? I am his wife. Dane,” she said in a softer tone. She’d never called Kensington by his Christian name, but it just slipped at that moment. “I am grateful for everything you’ve done for me, but I can’t leave him. I am still his wife.”

“I know. But we don’t know what he went through in those months away. We don’t know if…” he cleared his throat. “Until I am sure there is nothing about him, that might cause you shock—”

“Who do you take me for?” Annalise gaped at the man she thought she knew better than anyone else in this world. A man who protected her and comforted her during the worst months of her life and couldn’t believe she was hearing him right. “I am no simpering debutante, if there is anything wrong with my husband I can deal with it.”

“Please.” The Duke of Kensington very rarely pleaded with anyone.

Annalise pursed her lips and looked at the prone body of her husband sprawled on the bed. “All right. But if you find nothing… objectionable on his person, please call for me. I shall help you prepare him for the doctor’s arrival.” Annalise spared one last glance to her husband’s body and left the room with her head held high.

The moment she exited the room, however, her shoulders slumped and a horrid sob escaped her. She covered her mouth with her hand and leaned her back against the wall. The emotions, the excitement of the night was finally catching up to her. Tears ran down her cheeks and she angrily swiped them away. There was no use. She was sobbing in earnest now, crying like an unconsolable babe. She tried to calm down, but the sobs wouldn’t stop. Her legs gave out, and she slid down the wall. Oh, what a weakling. She placed her head against her knees and covered it with her arms.

Annalise imagined that the grief, the loss of what could have been and the pain of loneliness were all seeping out of her in the form of tears. She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts and feelings that she hadn’t heard the approaching footsteps. She realized somebody was near only when she heard the rustle of skirts, then a gentle hand about her shoulders. Annalise turned her head and caught a whiff of orange blossoms. A comforting, familiar scent.

“Caroline.” she managed through her sobs and placed her head on her friend’s shoulder. The sound of the door shutting beside her made her jump in reaction.

“It’s just the doctor, darling,” Caroline said with a squeeze to her shoulder.

“I need to—” Annalise made to stand, but Caroline held her down.

“What you need is to compose yourself. To calm your rioting nerves or you won’t be of help to anyone.”

“But—”

“No,” Caroline said firmly. “Kensington and the other men have everything well in hand. Your husband is—” she paused as if searching for a word “—indisposed at the moment, and he won’t know whether you’re in the room or not. Now, before he wakes up, we need you back to your usual self. Composed, collected, calm. We don’t know what he’s gone through, darling, and he will need your strength to rely upon.”

“My strength?” Annalise let out a short snort. “At the moment, I don’t have enough strength to keep me upright.”

“Exactly.” Caroline nodded in affirmation. “So you cry, you wail and yell if you have to, but do it out here. I will help you. Then and only after you’ve raged your frustrations can you go inside that room. Now,” she said in a gentler tone. “Tell me what you feel?”

“I feel?” Annalise watched her friend with a weary expression.

Caroline was too composed and calm in this strange situation. She was a debutante; she was supposed to be distressed or possibly even faint. Annalise, on the other hand, should be the one to take charge, to be strong and collected. She should be in the room with her husband, no matter their past. She needed to talk to Kensington and come to some sort of accord with him, too. Annalise had millions of thoughts rushing through her head, but what did she feel? She had no idea.

“I don’t know what I feel,” she said honestly.

Caroline smiled sadly. “The man you loved dearly, the man who then disappeared and was presumed dead just came back into your life. It’s understandable that you feel confused.” She paused. “Do you feel as though you’ve betrayed him, having gotten betrothed so fast?”

Annalise shifted to turn fully toward her friend. “No. I mean, yes. Maybe.” She grimaced. “I did at first, but that’s not what happened. And it was he who betrayed me, he—” she bit her lip and shook her head. “It’s unimportant now. I don’t know how I am to act around him now that he’s back. I loved him, yes. But it’s been so long ago, and so much has happened since then. Even before he disappeared. I felt glad—I am glad that he is alive. I care for him deeply—”

“Loved him? Care for him?” Caroline frowned at her. “Has your heart changed then? Are you in love with Kensington now?”

Annalise shook her head sadly. “No. He has been a good friend, and I told you before it was just an understanding. A mutually beneficial alliance of two friends, nothing more. But it doesn’t change the fact that before Blake disappeared—”

The door opened then, and St. John stuck out his head. “Lady Payne, would you like to come in? The doctor has finished his evaluation.”

Annalise nodded and scrambled to stand up. Caroline also rose and steadied Annalise as she swayed.

“Thank you, dear friend,” Annalise said with a smile. Caroline squeezed her hands and Annalise entered the room.

Blake opened his eyes to a dark room. For a moment, an old fear assailed him and he jumped to sit up in bed. That’s when a flickering of a bedside candle caught his eye. Bedside. He was in a bed.

“Blake,” a soft voice came from his right side.

The voice so pure and innocent he wanted to weep. Blake turned his head slowly, surveying the room all the while. He was in his old townhouse in London, he realized. He had no trouble recognizing the room, but it felt wrong somehow. It didn’t feel like home. He finally craned his neck and looked at his wife. She was sitting in a chair by the side of the bed. She took a glass of water from the bedside table and extended it toward him.

“The doctor said to keep you hydrated,” she said. “Please, drink.”

Blake took the proffered drink without a word and gulped the whole glass dry without taking his eyes off his wife. She was wearing her hair up, tucked in a neat chignon. Her face was white and bloodless, except for her lush pink lips. God, he wanted to taste those lips. He’d missed the taste of her, the soft pressure of those lips against his.

His gaze traveled down her creamy white skin until he encountered her dressing gown. She had changed from before. The dress she wore in the ballroom had a low neckline, almost too low to be descent, revealing her beautiful breasts for everyone to see. His gaze stopped on that part of her anatomy, although he couldn’t see anything save for the hideous dark fabric covering them. He gave her the empty glass and looked around the room again.

“Can you—” he croaked out before clearing his throat. “Can you light more candles, please? It’s too dark in here.”

After 14 months of separation, terrible weeks in the captivity spent dreaming of finally seeing his wife, these were not the first words he’d imagined saying to her.

“Of course,” Annalise stood to comply.

Blake settled back against the pillows. The bed was soft. Too soft. He imagined he wouldn’t be able to sleep comfortably in it for some time. But he’d persevere, he thought with a smirk. Annalise had lighted over a dozen candles by that time, poured more water into his glass from the pitcher and settled back into the chair.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

He looked back at her. He could see her more clearly for the candlelight. Her face looked troubled, or perhaps she was just weary. Her eyes were red-rimmed and the surrounding skin looked puffy. She cried upon his return then. Were those tears of happiness or was she grieving for the betrothal that would never be? The last thought sparked an angry cord in his heart.

“Do you love him?” he asked. Perhaps too sharply, because her eyes widened in shock.

“Do I love him? You mean Kensington, of course. Is that the only thing you could think to ask me?”

“No, not the only thing, but the first thing. You were going to marry him.”

“You were away, I thought you dead!” she said, her voice breaking.

“It didn’t take you long to replace me,” he answered, all his bitterness seeping through his tone.

Annalise looked at him wide-eyed. She took a couple of breaths to calm herself before she spoke. “I don’t want to argue, Blake. You’ve just returned. And if it puts your mind to ease—Then, no, I do not love him.”

Blake nodded, satisfied with her answer. He had too many questions he wanted to ask her. For instance, why in the devil’s name had she betrothed herself to the duke if what she said was true. More importantly, did she still love Blake? But he decided now was not the time.

“You look… well,” he drawled. “You are as beautiful as I remember. More so in fact.”

Annalise just shook her head quietly. “Where have you been? What has happened to you?”

Blake thought of the nights he’d spent in captivity, tortured. About the months on a slave ship, about the depravities he’d witnessed and couldn’t fathom what exactly he could tell his innocent wife about what had befallen him. He probably took too long with his answer, because she laughed sadly.

“I didn’t expect you to tell me, anyway.” She turned her face away from him. “Would you like more water?”

“Annalise.” Blake stretched out his hand, wanting to touch her skin, to feel her warmth beneath his fingers, to wipe that mask of sadness from her face, but she drew back. He curled his fingers into a fist and returned it to his side. “What I went through is not for lady’s ears.”

“I am your wife.”

“And that’s one more reason you shouldn’t know.”

She clearly misunderstood his meaning, because she reared back, before rising from the chair. “If you don’t have anything you wish to discuss with me, My Lord, then I will leave you to your rest.”

“Annalise,” he breathed.

She paused, half-way to the door. “I am glad you are back and I am truly happy to see you alive… Please, call for me if you need anything.” With these words, she shuffled out of the room and closed the door gently behind her.

Blake stared unblinking at the door. Not exactly the joyous reuniting of lovers he’d imagined a million times in his head. Where the devil did it all go wrong?