The Mistress Diaries
From bestselling author Julianne MacLean comes a grand historical romance series set in the lavish palace of an English duke, where duty and desire collide.
He told me he would treat my heart with great care. He was lying of course, for it was all a very clever, skillful seduction…
Cassandra Montrose cannot deny that she lost her head a year ago when she was whisked out of a London ballroom by Lord Vincent Sinclair, the most desirable man she'd ever met. She never imagined that she could engage in such wicked behavior with a man she barely knew, but in that heated moment, alone in his coach, the passion she felt for him was undeniable—even though she knew that after her surrender, she was unlikely to ever see her lover again.
Until a fateful secret brings her to his door…
Cassandra always believed that her pride would prevent her from becoming any man’s mistress – especially a rogue like Vincent, who cares for nothing but his inheritance. But she has a very good reason to remain in his life. If only he did not tempt her so…
Release date: September 17, 2020
Publisher: Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Print pages: 233
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The Mistress Diaries
I have always considered myself a woman of high moral fiber. How then could I have done such a thing? Where were my values and principles? But of course, I know the answer to those questions. It was without a doubt the blinding intensity of his charm, which made me forget everything I believed in.
—from the journal of
Lord Vincent Sinclair kicked open the door of the sumptuous London hotel room with staggering brute force and carried Cassandra Montrose, Lady Colchester, across the threshold.
Already delightfully tousled and flushed, for he had kissed her senseless in the coach the entire way there, Cassandra laughed and wrapped her arms tighter around his neck.
“I cannot believe we are doing this,” she said. “How shall I live with myself in the morning? You are a very bad influence, Lord Vincent—a rake of the highest order.”
He grinned and kicked the door shut behind him, then carried her across the rose-scented room in a glorious fluttering of silks and lace. He set her down by the enormous mahogany bed draped in crimson and gold velvet.
“How wonderful that you are aware of my most distinguished reputation, darling. Now I can be sure there will be no unrealistic expectations in the morning, no tears or broken hearts.” He grinned flirtatiously, his eyes smoldering with wickedness. “In that regard, I suppose I should warn you now. I am not the kind of man a woman should pin her hopes on.”
She raised a mischievous eyebrow. “As I said, a very bad influence indeed.”
Pulling at his white cambric bow tie and unbuttoning the top of his shirt, he smiled with devilish intent. “I assure you, Lady Colchester, I have not yet even begun to be a bad influence. My best is yet to come.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
He paused a moment just to look at her, then slowly removed the mother-of-pearl combs in her hair and slid the pins from her upswept locks, tucking them into his breast pocket with a confident glimmer in his eye.
Cassandra’s heart drummed with anticipation as her hair came loose and fell onto her shoulders. She had never imagined she would ever be so bold, so brazen, as to leave a ball and dash off into the night with a darkly handsome stranger she had only just met, a reputed rake and heartbreaker. But she supposed life was full of surprises—and not all of them as exciting as this one was turning out to be.
For that reason alone, she deserved this night of pleasure, didn’t she?
Yes. One night of passion before she went forward with her life. It was more than she ever would have imagined for herself earlier that evening when she had almost resigned herself to a loveless marriage for the second time in her life.
Vincent took her face in his hands, ran his thumbs lightly over her cheeks and gazed into her eyes with urgency. “I couldn’t help myself,” he said. “You put a spell on me, and when the night was coming to an end, I knew I couldn’t part from you. I had to steal you away.”
He took her into his arms and held her for a brief, breathtaking moment before he lowered his mouth to hers. The kiss was deep, damp, and tasted of champagne, and the intimate stroke of his tongue was so gratifying, so stimulating to her senses, she wondered how she was ever going to survive the multitude of pleasures to come.
He slowly turned her to face the bed, then began to unfasten the tiny pearl buttons at the back of her gown. Cassandra shivered at the sensation of his skillful fingers working down her back, and when he slid the lace neckline off her shoulder, she melted, for his hand was warm as it brushed lightly over her skin. He touched his lips to her nape, and her entire being trembled within.
With measured proficiency, he turned her to face him again and began to undress her, keeping his eyes fixed on hers the entire time.
As she met his penetrating gaze, she recognized something dark and cynical in his eyes—something almost dangerous. It was as if he wanted her to see it and to know that he was not to be romanticized. This is not love, he seemed to be telling her. Nothing will come of it. This is just one night.
Strangely, however, she was not deterred. She had no reservations about what they were about to do. She wanted only to experience the sexual act as it was meant to be experienced—with a man who knew exactly how to awaken a woman to real pleasure.
Carefully, he dealt with the clasp on her priceless jeweled necklace. He peeled her gloves from her hands, laying soft kisses on her wrists, then knelt before her and removed her satin slippers and silk stockings, one leg at time.
Whenever he bared more of her hungry, yearning flesh, he laid a kiss in that place and touched her with teasing, featherlike fingers that made her ache and burn for more. It was the most exquisite undressing of her life.
At last she was standing naked before him, openly, without shyness or modesty, aroused by the cool air on her feverish body. She had never felt so beautiful, so feminine.
Nor had she ever felt so reckless. It was outside anything she had ever done, and she prayed she would not burn in Hell for it—for giving in to her sexual desires so heedlessly with a man she barely knew, without a care for the consequences. But the fact of the matter was, she cared for nothing at this moment but her own pleasures.
What was it about this man? No wonder he was famous for his seductions.
Sliding a hand down the plush line of her hip, she reveled in her arousal while he swept his gaze appreciatively from her eager eyes to her full breasts, then down her long, slender legs. There was a dark hunger in his expression as he began to remove his own black and white formalwear—his jacket, his white tie and white waistcoat, his trousers and underclothes. He tossed everything to the floor, even his heavy pocket watch and cuff links, then stood nude by the bed, his strong, muscular body gleaming in the golden lamplight.
Cassandra was mesmerized. All she could do was stand and wait, breath held, for him to touch her.
Gazing into the blue depths of her eyes, he stepped forward, and her heart quickened with need. Were they really going to do this? She was trembling with anticipation.
He took her upper arms in his hands, then covered her mouth with his. The kiss was fierce, deep and insistent. A moment later he was easing her onto the bed, their bodies entwined intimately on the soft crimson covers.
“You have bewitched me,” he whispered as he dropped hot kisses down her quivering belly. “I knew from the first moment I saw you that I had to have you.”
“I felt it, too,” she replied, “just as I feel it now. I can barely comprehend it. All I want is to give myself to you completely. I want nothing else. It makes no sense when we have only just met.”
Bold words, all of them, and foolish, when she considered what she knew of this man—that he was the wildly disreputable son of a duke and could send the blood rushing to her head with mere kisses alone. But she couldn’t think straight when he touched her, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t fathom anything outside of this blissful need to be close to him, even if it was only for one night.
“How is it possible I have never met you before now?” he asked, poised above her, still looking into her eyes. “Where have you been hiding?”
Her tone grew serious. “I told you when we danced. I only just came out of mourning.”
Her husband had been dead for exactly one year.
Vincent brushed a finger lightly across her cheek and over her moist lips, swollen from his kisses. “You have been lonely, then?”
“Very.” It was God’s own truth. She had been lonely since the day she realized her husband had never loved her, for there had always been another —his mistress, the great love of his life.
“Did you love your husband very deeply?” Vincent asked.
No one had ever asked her anything like that before, and she blinked up at him, not quite sure how to answer. There had been moments, terrible moments, when she had known nothing but misery.
Vincent closed his eyes, and she sensed he had some experience with the loss of a loved one. “No, do not answer that,” he said. “I don’t want to spoil the mood, and it was wrong of me to ask, and I shall only be jealous of the man who was first to have your heart.”
“There is no need for jealousy,” Cassandra told him, understanding more with every passing moment why he was such a renowned master of seduction. He knew exactly what to say, how to feed a woman’s desire for intimacy. “My heart is yours tonight. As is my body.”
He opened his eyes again and laid butterfly kisses on the tip of her nose, her eyelids, her forehead, and down her cheek.
“Then I shall treat your heart and body with great care.”
Soon he was kissing her again, touching her and pushing her to the edge of heaven, into an overwhelming sensual madness until she heard herself gasp with shock and delight, for she had never known such exquisite indulgence. Her husband had certainly never taken the time.
Shameless, her hands came up to stroke the hard muscles of his chest. He paused to look down at her, his dark, passionate gaze roving down her nude body. She could not wait another moment and felt euphoric when he finally began to make love to her.
He went still, deep inside. His voice was low and controlled. “Tell me, Cassandra, is this a safe time?”
She gazed up at him, distracted. All she knew was her desire. “What do you mean?”
“If it is not, I will take care not to cause any unwanted accidents, but you must tell me now.”
She could barely think. A mighty hunger was escalating inside her. “There is no need to worry,” she replied. “I cannot...”
All at once the words became scrambled in her brain. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly, tried to remember her life outside this room, then somehow summoned the courage to speak the truth—to bury the feelings of failure and inadequacy she had known in her marriage.
“I cannot have children,” she explained. “I am barren.”
He lay motionless, staring into her eyes. “You are a beautiful woman, Cassandra. Do not ever forget that.”
She understood that the sentiment was meant to comfort her, to offer her some solace from her self-recriminations. He was indeed a master at this. She softened warmly inside.
He began to move again. She lay her head back upon the bed, gazing up at the strong lines of his jaw and his powerful dark eyes, heavy with desire.
It was magnificent, all of it, and she wondered if this was the kind of love the poets wrote about.
But no, it could not be. He was a man with a reputation, a seducer of women. This was only one night. She could not allow herself to become carried away by romantic notions.
Soon the pleasures mounted, and she watched, listened, and gloried in the sensation of Vincent’s strong, muscular body in bed with her. Something had sparked inside her from the beginning, the first instant she locked eyes with him in the ballroom. It was pure magic, like nothing she had ever experienced, vital and intoxicating, and it could have gone no other way. She simply had to have this night with him.
He groaned with the savage force of his completion, then relaxed and lay heavy upon her. Cassandra closed her eyes and held him tight, blissfully aware of his heart beating against hers while she hugged him to her.
Heaven help her, she did not want to let go. Despite her determination not to be swept away by romantic notions, she wanted to hold onto him forever, to feel this incredible, astonishing intimacy, this crushing closeness she had never known before this moment. A single tear squeezed from her eye and dropped across her temple, seeping into her hair.
She had not expected to feel like this, not with a rake like him. She was overcome. There was a strange, aching pain inside her heart that was both beautiful and terrifying. She felt very foolish.
Gently, Vincent withdrew and rolled onto his back beside her. They both stared up at the ceiling in silence.
“I was not expecting anything like this tonight,” he said in a low voice, as if having read her thoughts. “I was not even going to attend the ball. I had been invited elsewhere.”
He sounded surprised and bewildered. His dark brows pulled together in a frown.
“I did not expect it either,” she said, her voice faint and shaky. “I’ve never done anything like this in my life. It might be common for you, but...I don’t know what came over me.”
He turned his head on the pillow to look at her. “There was nothing common about it. You’re very...” His eyes dwelled curiously upon hers, as if he didn’t quite know how to finish what he’d started. “You’re very unique.”
She faced him and rested a cheek on a hand. “Are you saying that what we did tonight was special? Because I confess that when we left the ballroom together, I was under the impression you did this sort of thing all the time.” Something made her lighten her tone and touch him playfully on the shoulder with the tip of her finger. “Meet ladies at balls and whisk them away to your carriage, kiss them until they’re dizzy with pleasure, then carry them off to your bed.”
“Your impression was correct,” he replied, his darkly flirtatious countenance returning. “I do this sort of thing all the time, at every possible opportunity. Do not forget it, darling.”
She certainly would not.
“But truly,” he said, rolling onto his side and pulling her close, “it’s been a long time since I’ve had a night such as this.” It was music to her ears. “I hadn’t thought myself capable of it.”
His eyes narrowed with scrutiny. “I am afraid it’s a long and depressing story and I couldn’t possibly bore you with it. Besides, I don’t want anything to spoil this perfect night.”
She inched closer. “It has been perfect, hasn’t it?”
He sat up and rolled onto her again. She wrapped her legs around him.
“Promise me,” he said, “that you won’t rise from this bed in the morning and feel guilty for what we did, then leave London in shame to hide away in the country and punish yourself. I want to see you again.”
Did he mean it? Surely not.
“I want to see you again, too,” she cautiously replied, “but I...”
His head drew back. “You what?”
She hesitated, for she was not even sure she knew what tomorrow would bring. She had come to London to meet a man who had expressed interest in her as a wife, but in the first moments of their meeting, she knew she could never love him. So, without the joys of motherhood to make such a union worthwhile, what would be the point, except to be provided for? Surely, she could find another way to do that. She would not be averse to becoming a governess or a lady’s companion...
“It’s rather complicated,” she explained. “You see I came to London because my late husband’s cousin and heir, the new Lord Colchester, has been making arrangements to see me married again.”
He frowned. “Already? But you only just came out of mourning.”
“As I said, it is difficult to explain. Lord Colchester is an impatient man.”
Impatient and despicable.
“But you are not betrothed yet, are you?” Vincent stared into her eyes. “Tell me I did not just make love to another man’s fiancée.”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” she assured him. “But there was a man at the ball this evening who had been corresponding with Lord Colchester and was making inquiries about me.”
She paused. “Clarence Hibbert. Do you know him?”
Vincent’s eyebrows lifted and he laughed. “Clarence Hibbert? For you? Good God, you must be joking.”
She found herself chuckling as well, when she had never seen humor in any of this before. But she supposed it was true. Mr. Hibbert was small, plump, and balding, and he was a complete featherbrain. A rich featherbrain, mind you, but still a featherbrain.
“Joking or not,” she said, “I think I might have spoiled my chances with Mr. Hibbert when I ran off with you.”
“Thank God for that,” Vincent replied. “He’s all wrong for you, Cassandra. Not only is he a bumbling idiot, he is almost three times your age. A woman like you needs a strong, young, robust man with plenty of energy in his body and a good deal of activity in his brain.” He grinned and slid his hands under her bottom, then pulled her tight against his hips. He was already growing firm again. “You weren’t truly considering him, were you?”
“Only until the moment I met him.”
“Ah.” He slid his palm from her waist to her breast and made her sigh with pleasure again.
“The fact of the matter is,” she explained, tipping her head back when he began to kiss her neck, “I cannot continue to be dependent upon Lord Colchester. He will wish to take a wife one day, and I need to move on.”
“So, you will continue in your quest for a husband.”
Cassandra wet her lips. “Perhaps, or perhaps not. I might try to find work as a governess.”
He stopped what he was doing and looked at her. “Work.” He spoke the word as if it were a concept uttered in a foreign tongue. “But Cassandra, you are a lady.”
“A lady with very few options available to me. I cannot live on social position alone.”
“But your husband must have left you an inheritance.”
“Indeed, he left me a very generous one in his will, but unfortunately the money did not exist. He spent everything on his mistress. There was nothing but debts.”
Vincent’s eyes narrowed with unease. “Do you not have family who can take you in?”
All at once she wished she had not confessed any of this. The whole night had been so magical, and now she was spoiling it with the realities of her dismal life. “That would be a last resort,” she said. “They are not welcoming people.”
Cassandra took Vincent’s face in her hands, then pressed her lips to his, wanting only to recapture the magic. “Please, let us not talk about this anymore. I shall be brilliantly happy with my future, whichever path I choose. I am a free woman with a will of my own.”
She reached down and began to gently squeeze and stroke him.
He let out a husky groan. “My God, you are incredible. You make me feel so...” He did not finish the thought. He merely dipped his head and closed his eyes.
She blew softly into his ear and whispered, “Tell me, Vincent. How do I make you feel?”
He laid kisses down the length of her neck, across her shoulders and breasts. Fire ignited deep inside her.
“Poor Hibbert,” he said. “He doesn’t know what he lost.”
“And you cost me a husband, you naughty man. You shall have to make it up to me, you know.”
Vincent inched downward, his tongue pulsing gently across her belly. “Perhaps I shall propose to marry you instead.”
Knowing better than to take Vincent seriously when he was a known libertine and they were both tangled in the persuasive pleasures of erotic sensation, Cassandra shook her head at him. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
“No. And you shouldn’t tease a lady about something like that, Lord Vincent. As a gender, we take marriage very seriously.”
“What if I was not teasing?” he asked. “What if I mean to have you all to myself, forever and ever, till death do us part?”
She fought to keep her head—because he could not possibly mean it—but desire was clouding all hope of reason. “I hadn’t realized this night was quite as perfect as all that.”
He rose up on both arms and shifted his hips, easing himself into her pliant, heated warmth. “Believe me, it was.”
“Then let us see where it goes,” she suggested, wondering if it was possible for a woman to die of utter happiness.
“I already know where it’s going,” he declared in a low, gruff voice. “At least for tonight.” He reached over to turn the key in the lamp, and darkness enveloped the room.
In the morning, Cassandra was startled awake by a bright, blinding beam of sunlight cutting through the crack in the drapes. She blinked and squinted and sat up, hugging the sheets to her chest.
She was alone in the room, naked, and her head was aching from too much champagne the night before. What time was it?
She glanced at the pillow beside her, trying to make sense of her surroundings and situation.
Oh yes, the pleasure. The sensations. His body in the night...
She looked around the quiet room. Her gown was in a neat pile upon the chair. Her jewels were still on the dressing table where he had set them. His clothes, however, were gone. There was not a trace of him anywhere.
Cassandra swallowed uncomfortably as she imagined Lord Vincent creeping out of the room, making his escape in the predawn hours—which he had no doubt done many times before with countless other women just like her. He had left nothing behind but his scent on her skin, which would not last long, and—good heavens—a stack of money on the bedside table.
A heavy, sickening lump settled in the pit of her belly. She had never been an irresponsible woman, yet she had behaved recklessly with a wicked, albeit charming, rake. He had admitted openly that he was not to be depended upon, yet she had spent the night with him regardless. For a brief time at the height of their lovemaking, she had even imagined it was something more, something very magical. Not just for her, but for him, too.
It had been nothing of the sort, of course. He doubtless made all his lovers feel that way. It was why his path was littered with broken hearts.
She cupped her forehead in a hand and squeezed her eyes shut. What in God’s name had she been thinking? Had she had that much champagne? She hadn’t thought so, but how else could she possibly explain her behavior? It had been so outside of her usual caution and propriety.
Tossing the covers aside, Cassandra sat up on the edge of the bed. She rose to her feet and padded quietly around the empty room, knelt down to pick up her scattered underclothes, and chided herself as she dropped to her knees in search of a stocking under the bed. It was all so very humiliating.
Perhaps the worst part of it all was the fact that she was now fighting tears, which were pooling in the corners of her eyes. She was overwhelmingly disappointed. She was hurt because he was gone, when it had all seemed so wonderfully romantic.
Oh, she would never forgive herself for being so naive. She pulled the stocking out from under the bed and sat back on her heels, praying to God that she would never have to see that rakish Lord Vincent again. She would simply do her best to forget him, and to forget that this night ever happened.
One Year Later
No doubt this will be the most trying experience of my life, but I must endure it as best I can, for I have made up my mind. I cannot put my own needs first. I must do the responsible thing.
—from the journal of
On the day that Lord Vincent Sinclair returned to Pembroke Palace after a tedious week securing a fiancée in London, cold hard raindrops were dropping from the clouds like overturned buckets of nails.
With his future bride sitting proudly beside him, he sat back in the rumbling coach and rubbed a hand over his chin. He looked out the rain-soaked window at his majestic family home in the distance, in all its arrogant, pompous glory. Miles away, high upon the hilltop, it gloated, preened, and reveled in its own lofty magnificence. In Vincent’s mind, however, those impressive stone towers and turrets and the ostentatious triumphal arch at the entrance could not disguise the wretchedness in its foundations, for it was built upon the ruins of an ancient abbey whose walls had been knocked down by betrayal and the grisly murder of one of his ancestors.
Of course, that was a long time ago. Now it was a distinguished, dazzling palace. A house of dukes. And hardly anyone knew the intimate truth about the Pembrokes—that brotherly betrayal still breathed behind the tapestries, and a secret madness lurked in the dark, subterranean passageways.
He turned to look at his fiancée—Lady Letitia Markham, eldest daughter of the Duke of Swinburne—but found himself staring only at the back of her head, for she was sitting forward on the seat beside him, peering out the other window. He noted the excessive details of her elaborate hat—the silly lilac bows and ribbons and the complicated wreath of cherry blossoms, all of it secured over a dozen shiny black ringlets and scented with strong, somewhat sickening perfume.
At least she was a beauty, he thought as he turned and looked out his own window again. If he was going to be dragged like a dog into marriage, it might as well be pleasantly done. Letitia was tall, slender, and graceful. She had the face of a goddess, so if nothing else, she would be pretty to look at on their wedding night when he was fulfilling his husbandly duty by depriving her of her virginity.
He glanced at her again, looked her up and down with indifference, then returned his detached gaze to the view outside the window. To be honest, he wasn’t even certain she was a virgin. Not that he cared. When it came to his duty to his family, he cared for very little. He certainly cared nothing for the woman beside him. She was shallow and self-absorbed and interested in nothing more than his social position as an heir to the Pembroke dukedom and his fantastically enormous fortune. She certainly did not love him.
But that was hardly a problem, he supposed, because he was a man who lived for pleasure. He was known to be disreputable and depraved, made no apologies for it, and Letitia, thank God, understood all of that. There were no preconceived notions of romance between them. She even seemed rather contemptuous of sentimental affections, which in all honesty made this woman his perfect match.
But that was beside the point. What mattered presently was that his father had already given this particular woman his stamp of approval, which was at the root of all this insanity. Vincent had gone to London to fetch Lady Letitia and propose, with the full intention of marrying her before Christmas, because his father demanded he take a wife. If all four of the duke’s sons were not husbands by then, he had made very clear that they would all be disinherited.
The upside was that they would each be awarded five thousand pounds on their wedding day, simply for saying “I do.” The duke had deemed it so in the will—along with the stipulation that he must approve of each new bride of Pembroke. That was reason enough for Vincent to go through with it, with this woman in particular. The money would secure him a residence far away from the palace so that he would never have to return here again.
And of course, how could he forget? There was also the family curse that needed to be thwarted by four marriages, or heaven forbid, the entire palace would be swept away by a torrential flood.
Bloody madness, all of it. Bloody ridiculous madness, with nothing to be done to change it. The doctors and solicitors had deemed the duke sane at the time the will was drawn up, so there it was. Unalterable.
Exhaling sharply, Vincent leaned closer to the window to look up at the ominous clouds in the sky and the rain that showed no signs of letting up. His father was probably in a panic today if the fields were flooding, which they most certainly were. The coach had driven through half a dozen puddles the size of fishponds on the way to the palace.
Dreading the senseless drama he was sure to come home to, Vincent turned to look at Letitia again, and hoped her arrival and talk of wedding plans would distract the old man from the weather.
As for himself, well, he meant to do his duty and be done with it, then God willing, he would be free to live as he chose. How difficult could one wedding be? Surely no more difficult than accepting the fact that his father was stark raving mad.
“Tell me,” Letitia said, turning her ever so pretty head toward him, as if she had sensed his eyes upon her, “how soon will I get to see the necklace? I must be wearing it when we make the formal announcement.”
He looked at her impatient brown eyes and tiny upturned nose and wondered why he had felt compelled to offer that particular jewel when he proposed. It was the famous Pembroke Sapphire—a sparkling stone the size of the continent. It had been the engagement gift presented to his great-grandmother by the fourth Duke of Pembroke.
Another woman had worn it more recently, of course. Another fiancée three years ago. But she had not lived to see her wedding day.
Vincent reflected upon his own infinite bitterness with a perverse touch of amusement. “I will speak to Mother about it the instant we arrive.” He patted Letitia’s hand. “She has been keeping it safe for you, darling.”
Letitia lifted a delicately arched brow. “Well, I certainly hope so. From what I understand, it is a jewel to be reckoned with.”
“As are you,” he casually replied.
“Yes. As am I.” She turned her eyes proudly toward the window again, leaving him to stare at all those ridiculous ribbons and flowers.
They pulled up in front of the palace, and two footmen came dashing down the stairs with umbrellas. Letitia’s mother, seated across from them, stirred from her slumber and murmured, “Have we arrived?”
“Indeed we have, Your Grace.” Vincent stepped out first, undaunted by the wind and violent downpour and the sharp, stinging raindrops on his cheeks, for he found it all rather poetic. It was the perfect backdrop for his arrival.
He offered his hand to Letitia’s mother, the Duchess of Swinburne. She stepped out of the coach and was quickly ushered up the stairs by a footman, who struggled in the violent, blustery wind to hold an umbrella over her head.
Vincent offered his hand to his betrothed, who emerged from the carriage with a scowl.
“I am so sick of this putrid rain,” she said. “Look what it has done to my shoes. It had better dry up before our wedding day, or I swear to you, Vincent, we will have to postpone. I refuse to walk down the aisle with mud on my gown.”
He took the umbrella from the second footman and sheltered his spoiled future bride from the wind and rain. “We shall postpone if it pleases you.”
He really didn’t care, as long as they were married by Christmas.
Again, she raised an eyebrow at him. “I knew I picked the right brother.”
She was referring of course to his older brother Devon, who had recently considered her in his own search for a bride, but had chosen another. Much to Letitia’s dismay and displeasure.
She was also acknowledging the fact that Vincent was bending to her will, for she was the kind of woman who liked to have her own way.
He really didn’t care about that either. He would bend all the way to China if it would secure his inheritance and get him his five thousand pounds. After that, the bending would, of course, come to an end.
Together they hurried up the steps and found dry cover under the enormous portico and clock tower. Vincent lowered the umbrella, while his fiancée wiped a gloved hand over her skirts.
“I swear, Vincent,” she snapped. “This weather...”
He was growing tired of the subject, and quite frankly, tired of her. It had been a long coach ride from the train station.
“The sun will be shining soon enough.” Turning, he handed the umbrella to the footman and offered her his arm.
Letitia’s mother had already gone inside and was meeting his own mother in the grand entrance hall. The two duchesses were laughing about something, and their voices echoed off the high frescoed ceiling. They both stopped and turned when Vincent and Letitia swept through the door on a tempestuous gale that whipped at her skirts then died away as the doors swung shut behind them.
“Vincent, welcome home,” his mother said, crossing the marble floor with hands outstretched to greet him. She wore an amber silk day dress, and her golden hair was knotted elegantly. She was without question one of the most beautiful women in England, despite the fact that she had just celebrated her fiftieth birthday. Tall and slim and blessed with an inherent warmth and charm, she was adored by everyone who made her acquaintance, and was famous throughout England for her kindness and charity.
“Hello, Mother.” Vincent kissed her cheek, then turned to the dark beauty at his side. “You remember Lady Letitia. It is my pleasure to present her as my betrothed.”
Vincent’s mother took her future daughter-in-law’s hands in her own and kissed her on the cheek. “My dear, welcome back to Pembroke. We are delighted to see you again, and under such happy circumstances.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Letitia glanced at Vincent and inclined her head as if to remind him of something.
He stared at her for a cool moment before he turned his eyes back to his mother. “It was very generous of you, Mother, to offer Great-grandmother’s necklace. We are touched beyond words.”
His mother’s lips parted slightly as she blinked up at him, and she appeared uncharacteristically flustered, but soon recovered herself. She spoke with poise and graciousness, as always. “And I have been beside myself, waiting to see you wearing it, Lady Letitia. I shall have it sent to Vincent’s rooms immediately.”
His mother looked up at him again with a measure of concern, and he wondered if she had changed her mind about the necklace.
But no...it was something else. Perhaps his father was especially fretful today. This kind of weather always made him anxious.
Before Vincent had a chance to inquire, his brother Devon appeared under the keystone arch at the back of the hall and stared at Vincent as if he had just shot the butler.
Vincent felt all the muscles in his neck and shoulders clench slowly like a fist.
His raven-haired brother, with eyes as blue as an October sky, had returned from America little more than a month ago, after being gone for three very congenial years. Vincent was not yet accustomed to seeing Devon back in the house, striding around as if their personal war had never occurred. And his brother had taken charge of the estate as if their father had already handed over the title.
“Devon,” Vincent said flatly. “How good of you to greet us. You remember Lady Letitia, I presume.”
Of course his brother would remember her. She had thrown a tantrum in the study not long ago, screeching at Devon and slapping his face. It was the day she learned he had proposed to another woman.
It was one of the few decadent pleasures of the day, Vincent supposed, to bring Letitia back here and present her to Devon.
His brother’s gaze shifted to Letitia, as if he had only just then become aware of her presence. She glared at him for an icy instant before he strode forward and spoke with polite reserve. “Welcome back to Pembroke, Lady Letitia.”
She smirked and slipped her arm through Vincent’s. “Thank you, Lord Hawthorne. I am pleased to return, especially now that I am engaged to your very charming and handsome younger brother.”
“My congratulations to you both.” Devon turned his attention to Vincent. “But I must have a word with you. Now, if you please.”
It was not lost on Vincent that their mother was biting her lower lip. “I presume it is a matter of some importance?” he replied.
“Yes, it is an urgent problem.”
Just then their younger brother Blake appeared at the top of the stairs. “Vincent. You’re back...”
An awkward silence ensued. It seemed to Vincent that the scene had become rather theatrical, so he slid his arm free of Letitia’s possessive grip. “If you will excuse me, darling. Obviously, there is some colossal household matter that requires my attention.”
Her cheeks flushed red with what appeared to be annoyance. She was growing tired of waiting for the necklace, no doubt.
“Of course,” she said, with a mask of affability.
His mother moved forward to distract the two ladies. “Allow me to escort you both to your rooms, where I am certain you will enjoy the spectacular views of the lake.” She nodded at a footman to inform the housekeeper.
Wondering what was so important that it could not wait, Vincent broke from the ladies and followed the brother he so deeply despised into the library.
“I beg your pardon?” Vincent said as Devon handed him a glass of brandy. “Did I hear you correctly?”
“You are telling me that a baby was brought here. To the house. This morning.”
“And the child is alleged to be mine?” His body went utterly still as he comprehended this most shocking news, which in no way could be true. “This is beyond even you, Devon. You cannot be serious. Is this a joke?”
“Am I laughing?” his brother replied. “Do I appear amused, even in the slightest?”
No, he most certainly did not.
The possible legitimacy of his brother’s pronouncement and all its implications struck Vincent hard, but any immediate anxiety was smothered instantly by denial, for he had always been exceedingly careful. It absolutely could not be true.
He glanced down at the brandy in the glass, stared at it for a moment, swirled it around, then without taking a drink set it on a table. He crossed to the window and looked out over the vast estate to the horizon, blurred by mist and clouds. Everything inside him was churning with shock and unease and a tumultuous mix of emotions he could not even begin to fathom. All the while his intellect was measuring the predicament with heightened precision and clarity.
He thought of all the women he had bedded over the past year. He tried to picture their faces, but most were blurred images, flashes of memory. A laugh here, a kiss there—all insignificant, forgettable encounters. Only one stood out in his mind, like a lone portrait in a fine gallery. Of that night he remembered everything.
But it could not be her.
“How do you know this woman is telling the truth?” he asked, not yet ready to believe it, for there were many reasons a woman would stoop to such tricks. Wealthy and powerful, the men of Pembroke were each in their own right a tempting prize. Setting a trap such as this would be all too easy where Vincent was concerned, for the whole of England knew of his reputation, and certainly the women he slept with were not known for their morals and principles.
Except perhaps for that one particular woman, on that one particular night. She had been different from the rest. But it was not her.
“That is the problem,” Devon said. “We have no way of knowing.”
Vincent walked to the sofa and sat down, then planted his elbows on his knees, bowed his head and squeezed his hair in his hands. “What rotten timing.”
“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Devon said. “You’re a man who enjoys his pleasures with women of loose morals. You are notorious for it.”
Vincent lifted his head. “I don’t need a lecture from you, Devon, of all people. And I will have you know that I always take precautions.”
“Not very good ones, evidently. It doesn’t take much, you know. Just one moment of weakness or forgetfulness.”
Vincent glared at his brother with unadorned loathing. “I know how it works. And so do you, by God.”
The reminder was enough to silence his brother, for they both knew that Devon had experienced his own moment of weakness three years ago. That precise lack of control over his passions had cut and mutilated their friendship forever, because they’d both loved the same woman—MaryAnn, who was off-limits to Devon because she was engaged to Vincent, and Vincent had loved her with all his young and foolish heart.
But Vincent did not need to think about that. MaryAnn was dead and buried.
Devon picked up Vincent’s brandy, handed it back to him, and sat down in the opposite chair. “You’re going to have to speak with this woman and find out if the child is yours.”
“Speak with her.” Vincent frowned. “She is here?”
“Yes. She is in the green guest chamber in the south wing.”
Vincent stared down at his brandy, then downed it in a single gulp. “What is her name?” he asked, grimacing as the alcohol burned a scorching path down his throat.
“She is guarding her identity quite doggedly I’m afraid,” Devon replied. “In fact, she doesn’t even want to be here. It wasn’t her intention to see you. She only meant to ensure the infant was cared for.”
Vincent felt a sudden pressure inside his head. “She hasn’t asked for money?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He frowned. “What happened, exactly, when she arrived? And who knows about this?”
“She came at dawn on foot and knocked on the servants’ door. She explained herself to Mrs. Callahan, then asked her to deliver a letter to Mother. The letter states the child is yours, but that the young woman can no longer care for her because—”
“The child is a girl?”
Vincent tipped his head onto the back of the sofa. “Go on.”
Devon continued. “Unfortunately, the woman in question was long gone by the time Mother read the note. Mother went immediately to fetch the child, who was with the housekeeper, and brought both the infant and the note to me. I woke Blake, and we went out on horseback searching. The woman wasn’t difficult to find, as she was not well and hadn’t gotten very far.”
Vincent looked up. “Not well, you say?”
Devon answered the question with a grave nod.
For a long moment, Vincent sat and tried to make sense of his emotions, which were beginning to assert themselves with astounding force. He wanted to leap out of his chair, dash out of this room and meet the woman for himself, to discover her identity and see the baby. He did not act so hastily, however, for he knew he must keep his head. He could not permit himself to ignore the possibility that this was in fact a trap. That it was another man’s child, not his.
“Father is not yet aware what has occurred?” Vincent asked.
“We did not believe he could cope with the news just now.”
Vincent rubbed a hand over his thigh and contemplated the situation. “I agree with you on that point at least. It is difficult to predict how Father would react. We should keep this from him, at least until I have a chance to speak with the woman, whoever she is.” He stood. “I will go now and deal with her.”
“I don’t see how you have any choice, Vincent. It appears your recklessness has finally caught up with you.”
Vincent glared heatedly at his brother. “Spare me the self-righteous babble, Devon. You’re no saint yourself, and you know it.”
He turned and left the library.
Mounting the stairs with one steady, sure-footed step at a time, Vincent resolved to keep a vigilant head when he met this woman, for she could easily be a fortune hunter, and if she was, he would have to draw her out.
If, on the other hand, the child was his...
Something inside him lurched involuntarily. What would he do? Give the woman money, he supposed. Provide for the child somehow. And remind the woman that he was a callous, irresponsible rake with a heart of stone. Send her on her way. She’d be better off.
He walked faster down the central corridor, tense and impatient, irritable in his discomfort.
A baby girl. What would she look like?
He would know if she was his, wouldn’t he? Something in him would sense the truth, would recognize his own flesh and blood? He would feel something?
It was quiet as he strode through the gallery, past the potted tree ferns, around the corner, and at last down the south corridor. The doors to all the rooms were shut. He did not even know which one was the green guest chamber.
Heart pounding with impatience, he tried them all, gripping the knobs, shaking and rattling the doors that were locked until he found himself stepping into a bedroom.
Suddenly, he stood on a soft oval carpet, facing a window with drapes drawn to keep out the daylight, staring at a woman asleep in the bed.
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