One of seventy-two letters from Mister X carefully organized
and stacked by date and held together by several well-perfumed sashes
5th of June, 1849
My dearest and most beloved Jane,
I hear you tried to bribe my messenger into telling you a name. Dare I ask what it means? Is it possible you are enamored with me? In the same manner I am shamelessly enamored with you? Or are you merely enamored with the mystery I represent and the fact that even the gossip rags, which have no business knowing of our exchange, are seeking to unveil me? Speak of me to the world, if you must, but only do so to keep lovers away. Otherwise, you are inviting all of London to mock me and what I represent. I recognize your impatience and share in your impatience, as well, but let us be honest in this. If I were to reveal myself in the manner you insist upon, by calling on you at Drury Lane, I would find myself crowded out by countless men of talent and accomplishment who hover over your hand every night. Sadly, I have no real talents or accomplishments I can boast of other than the one I was born unto. I wish to believe in your devotion and in the words you write. By the light of heaven, I live for it. My breath catches every time I reread your letters, knowing how you yearn for me and that you genuinely wish for us to meet. Give me time so I may whisper upon every last star in the sky that you will not be disappointed when we meet. From this night forth, however, I step toward our future. I step toward a lifetime of endless possibilities knowing you are mine.
I am yours. Let there be no doubt in that.
Twelfth Night, 1850
To the world, Mrs. Jane Margaret Robinson was the epitome of savoir faire. To herself, she was merely an ordinary woman who considered herself extraordinarily blessed to have followed not only her own head but her own heart. Neither had ever led her astray in her two and twenty years. Not ever. Not once. In fact, both had led her to this very pivotal moment of knowing that she, Jane, was celebrating her first Twelfth Night as Mrs. X. Or rather, Mrs. Robinson. Though she rather enjoyed flaunting the salacious title of Mrs. X.
The ornate ballroom and all of its guests who danced and conversed beneath glimmering crystal chandeliers draped with holly made her feel exquisite and alive. The violins and the floating harmony of playful flutes and the stomping of feet and clapping of hands engulfed her and made her blissfully sway from side to side.
Whilst men and women stared at her throughout the night with awed expressions, as if she had descended from Mount Olympus wearing nothing but fig leaves, she was used to it. As an opera singer who had been hailed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as an exemplary talent not to be missed, she had been flung from obscurity into the gilded realm of celebrity so quickly it still overwhelmed her.
She had everything she had ever wanted.
Everything, that is, but her father’s blessing.
She sighed. One couldn’t have everything.
George Franklin Robinson, the host and her husband’s older brother, who was worth a ridiculous godly sum due to his family’s investments in the railroad, sidled up to her. He lingered for a moment before offering, “Hello, Jane.”
“Hello, George.” Jane continued to sway to the music, pinning her gaze to a laughing couple tossing berries of mistletoe at each other. She smiled, watching them playfully dodge the berries.
“Another Twelfth Night.”
She glanced toward her brother-in-law, sensing he was distressed. “George. Are you all right?”
Grey eyes briefly surveyed her before blinking away what were clearly tears. He gestured with his half-empty wineglass toward the couples dancing. “Seeing everyone so happy makes me miss my Elizabeth all the more. ’Tis a damnable way to live. To see her in everything. I drown in it.” He took a swig of wine. “Twelfth Night was her favorite night, you know. She used to say to me, ‘When things aren’t right, all will be as it should come Twelfth Night.’” He took another swig of wine and was quiet for a moment. “But it isn’t as it should be. She isn’t here.”
Tears pricked her eyes. She had never known a man so devoted to the memory of his wife. It was as beautiful as it was heartrending. She reached out and gently squeezed his arm. “I know how much you loved her. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“So am I. Two years and I still can’t breathe.”
“I wish I could have met her.”
“You would have liked her,” he murmured, fingering the glass. “She and I would have been married ten years next month. I try to take pleasure knowing she gifted me with four children and that they are still with me and in good health.” He tossed back the rest of his wine and hesitated, his blond brows coming together. He glanced toward her. “Have I ever told you she was as musically inclined as you?”
Jane smiled. “No. Did she sing?”
“God, no. No, no, no. She was always a touch off-key. She did, however, play the harp. Exquisitely.” He took on a distant look. “She used to play when all was quiet. Sometimes I still think I can hear her playing when I’m walking down the halls at night.”
It was obvious Jane had married into a family of hopeless romantics. Not that it surprised her. Philip’s own antics of taking on the role of Mister X were but an introduction to it. “Elizabeth was blessed to have been so loved by you.”
“You flatter me. I would say Philip is the one who is blessed. When it comes to you, that boy is always—” He sighed and leaned in. “Jane.”
He hesitated. “Are you happy?”
She blinked. “With Philip?”
“Yes. Does he make you happy?”
Jane playfully nudged him. “Ask me again in five years, George,” she drawled, trying not to laugh. “Because it’s only been two weeks since I have been Mrs. X. I am likely to be biased.”
He eyed her and glanced down at his empty glass, fingering it. “Philip still hasn’t told you yet, has he?”
She stared, her smile fading. “Told me what?”
After a long moment of silence, he said, “He never wrote any of those letters.”
Her lips parted and her heart nearly dashed itself to the floor. “What? But he knew the contents of every one. Letters I never showed anyone. Not even my— How would he have known?”
George didn’t meet her gaze. “He paid one of your footmen to bring all the letters to him. He read every one and then had them returned to your dressing table. He feels guilty as hell about it and doesn’t know how to go about telling you. Which is why I’m telling you.”
She gasped. “What?”
He tightened his hold on the wineglass. “He isn’t a bad chap. As with all men, his passions misguide him.”
Dearest God. “It can’t be true,” she rasped, feeling the happiness she thought was hers shriveling. “George. I would have known. There wasn’t a breath of doubt in my mind as to who he was. Not a breath. The spark between Philip and me was instantaneous. It was real.”
“All sparks usually are. That doesn’t make it any less real.”
Her throat tightened. “So he didn’t—”
“No. He didn’t.”
“I’m sorry. He can be quite the boar when it comes to something he wants. He was beyond smitten when it came to you. He couldn’t be reasoned with. He asked me not to say anything. He promised me he would tell you when he was ready.”
A breath escaped her. It was like she had fallen in love and married the wrong man.
He gently touched her arm. “Let him know that I told you. It will all settle amicably. You will see.”
Anger and shame choked her. “Settle amicably?” She could barely say the words. “For three months of courtship and two weeks of marriage, he made me believe he was someone he wasn’t. He made me believe he was a man that I—” Oh, God.
Gathering her skirts, she hurried toward the opposite side of the room, the faces around her blurring. Her hands trembled even though she tried to exude strength.
Well before her fame, and once upon a time, she swept into her dressing chamber after each performance at the Theatre Royal to find an unsigned letter whose perfectly scribed words went beyond depicting her beauty and ability to sing. It was as if the man who had written them knew her intimately and was challenging her to know him. It was a mutual conversation that went beyond lust. It was a mutual conversation that went beyond need. He had become her twin flame.
Although every man tried to be him, no man ever was. She was able to decipher the frauds who claimed to be him when unsavory gossip about Mister X and her had hit the papers, because no man had been able to disclose the contents of his letters. She waited and waited for the mysterious Mister X to make himself known as he promised he would. And then one night, he appeared. She knew it was him, even before any words had passed his lips or hers. He was everything she had imagined he would be. Dashingly passionate, intelligent, witty, kind, and divine. Not even three months later, she married him.
Or who she thought was him.
Jane skidded to a halt and turned toward her husband at seeing him converse with a group of other men several feet away. Her skin crawled, realizing the predicament she was in.
She had married a lie.
That was why the letters had stopped.
Not because she had found Mister X.
But because she had betrayed him.
The room seemed to momentarily sway.
Philip’s gaze veered toward her. As if sensing something was wrong, his masculine features tightened. He excused himself from his male entourage. “Jane?” he called out.
How could she not have known? And who had she taken into her life, into her heart, and into her bed?
Grey eyes searched her face as he approached with long-legged strides. “Jane.” Philip veered in close and took her hands, his fingers grazing her skin with his warmth. “What is it?”
Humiliation choked her. She flung away his hands, not wanting to be touched. “Don’t touch me. Don’t ever touch me again.”
He wordlessly lingered, startled.
Her breaths came in uneven takes. Perhaps her fame and her need to be loved outside of it had ultimately led to this betrayal. From chroniclers standing outside her doors on the hour, to men and women overstepping their bounds, it was relentless. Everything had blurred. Including her own understanding of the love she had for Mister X. She thought she would know him upon first glance. She was sure of it. She thought— “You lied,” she managed, the words feeling heavy on her tongue. “You made me believe you wrote those letters.”
He grew somber. “Jane. I wanted to tell you, but I knew if I did, you would have ended it before we had a chance.”
“So for three months of courtship and two weeks of matrimony you exchanged my trust for your so-called chance? Is that it?”
He said nothing.
She swallowed, unable to unleash the anger simmering within. “I want a divorce.”
He stared. “Surely you don’t mean that.”
“I do. Because I don’t know you. You are not the man I wanted.”
“But I love you.”
“No,” she bit out. “You don’t love me. Or you would have told me the truth long before we pledged ourselves to God. What you loved was the idea of me, much like every man in London who held up pearls in the hopes of getting noticed and seizing me like some…some…thoroughbred to be trotted around Hyde Park. It was a lie. All of it. You. This. I married a lie. And I am not staying married to a lie.”
His expression stilled. “You cannot divorce me over this.”
“You seduced me under false pretenses.”
His brows flickered. “False pretenses? Is that the crime I am accused of? When you wouldn’t even let me or any other man engage you unless he was your Mister X?”
“Because I didn’t want anyone else but Mister X!” she yelled, no longer caring if the world watched.
“So you are still in love with him?” he yelled back. “As opposed to me? Is that what you’re telling me? Despite our marriage? Despite the fact that I have claimed you for my own?”
She glared. “Don’t mock me when you are the one who betrayed my trust.”
He dropped his voice to a lethal tone. “You and your obsession with a man who ought to be shot doesn’t even make sense. I did everything to make you mine. Everything. And what did he do? Write letters? Hell, he couldn’t even do that much. Because he didn’t even bother to write you a letter stating I wasn’t Mister X!”
She narrowed her gaze, trying to remain calm. “Maybe he didn’t fight for me, Philip, because he doesn’t believe in forcing his intentions upon those he claims to love.”
He glared and leaned in close, almost hitting her nose with his. “Everything that happened between us was real and you know it. Though your prim and proud nature refuses to admit it, you enjoyed every last moment you writhed naked beneath me. Admit it.”
She slowly shook her head, biting back the need to smack him. She stepped away. “How could you kiss me and touch me knowing that in my heart I was kissing and touching another? Did that not turn your stomach? Did that not turn your soul?”
He swiped his face. “I didn’t lie about anything else.”
“And I’m supposed to believe you?”
He turned away and punched the air. “I’m not letting you do this!” he roared.
Startled guests, including an old woman, glanced their way.
She took in several astounded breaths, wishing the air around her would clear her thoughts. She had never heard him roar with such loathing before. It was obvious this was who he really was. A sob escaped her. “I’m not coming home with you tonight, Philip. Or any other night, for that matter. This is not what I wanted.”
He swung back toward her, his grey eyes dark and fierce. “If you leave, I will unearth whoever this Mister X is. And when I do, I’ll kill him. Don’t think I won’t. Because you’re my wife, Jane. Not his. Mine. And I damn well won’t—” Rubbing his upper arm, his brows came together. He winced and tightened his grip on his arm. “Oh God.” He winced again and staggered, glancing toward her in bewilderment.
She paused, her mind cluttered. “What is it?”
“I—” He collapsed onto the marble floor with a thud, arms limply falling at his sides.
Her eyes widened in disbelief. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. He was trying to manipulate her emotions. Pulse roaring, she frantically kneeled beside him and grabbed his shaven face through the bundling of her evening gown. “Cease this! This is hardly going to change my mind.”
His head rolled heavily toward her, his lips still parted, and his eyes wide open without any hint of movement.
A startled sob escaped her as she shook him. “Philip!” she choked out. “Oh dearest God. Philip!”
He didn’t respond. Nor did he appear to be breathing.
It was real. He was dead.
She screamed, unable to believe what was happening, as multiple male hands tried to pry her away.
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