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A Season of Secrets

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«A Season of Secrets» - Кэрол Мортимер

London, 1817.The Earl of Chambourne’s scandalous reputation has been well-earned, but he has never forgotten the only woman he has ever loved—nor forgiven her for marrying another man while he was off fighting in France.When Christian discovers she is a widow, he hungers to possess her once again—as his mistress. Lady Sylviana Moorland, Countess of Ampthill, knows it is only a matter of time before she comes face to face with Christian again.No longer an innocent, she sees no reason not to take the sensual pleasure he offers. But can Sylvie resist falling for the seductive rake?
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MILLS & BOON

London, 1817

The Earl of Chambourne’s scandalous reputation has been well-earned, but he has never forgotten the only woman he has ever loved—nor forgiven her for marrying another man while he was off fighting in France. When Christian discovers she is a widow, he hungers to possess her once again—as his mistress.

Lady Sylviana Moorland, Countess of Ampthill, knows it is only a matter of time before she comes face to face with Christian again. No longer an innocent, she sees no reason not to take the sensual pleasure he offers. But can Sylvie resist falling for the seductive rake?

Part of Carole Mortimer’s A Season of Secrets series.

Not Just a Seduction

Carole Mortimer



www.millsandboon.co.uk

MILLS & BOON

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Contents

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Copyright

Chapter One

April, 1817

The London home of Lady Cicely Hawthorne.

“I trust, ladies, that you have not begun to discuss the matter of our grandsons’ future wives without me...?” Edith St. Just, Dowager Duchess of Royston, frowned down the length of her aristocratic nose as she entered the salon where her two closest friends sat on the sofa in cozy conversation together.

“We would not think of doing such a thing, Edith.” Her hostess stood up to cross the room and greet her with a warm kiss on both of her powdered cheeks.

“Of course we would not.” A smiling Lady Jocelyn Ambrose, Dowager Countess of Chambourne, also rose to her feet.

The three women had been firm friends since some fifty years ago when, at the age of eighteen, they had shared a coming-out Season, their friendship continuing after they had all married. After becoming mothers and then grandmothers in the same years, the ladies continued to meet at least once a week while their respective husbands were still alive and sometimes two or three times a week since being widowed.

The dowager duchess nodded her satisfaction with her friends’ replies before turning to the young lady who had accompanied her into the salon. “You may join Miss Thompson and Mrs. Spencer at their sewing, Ellie.”

* * *

Eleanor Rosewood gave a brief curtsy to the lady who was not only her step-great-aunt by marriage but also her benefactress before stepping lightly across the room to join the other companions quietly sewing in the window alcove. The ladies, much older than her nineteen years, nevertheless smiled at her in welcome. As they had for this past year.

If not for the dowager duchess’s kindness, Ellie feared that she might have been forced to offer herself up to the tender mercies of becoming one of the demimonde after the death of her mother and stepfather had revealed she had not only been left penniless but seriously in debt. Edith St. Just, hearing of her nephew’s profligacy, had wasted no time in sweeping into his stepdaughter’s heavily mortgaged home and paying off those debts before gathering Ellie up to her ample bosom and making a place for her in her own household as her companion. This past year in that lady’s employ had revealed to Ellie that Edith St. Just’s outward appearance of stern severity hid a heart of gold.

Unfortunately the same could not be said of her grandson, the arrogant and ruthless Justin St. Just, Duke of Royston, the haughtiness of his own demeanor a reflection of the steel within...

“Are you sure this is altogether wise?” Lady Cicely ventured uncertainly. “Thorne is sure to be most displeased with me if he should discover I have plotted behind his back to secure him a wife.”

“Humph.” The dowager duchess snorted down the length of her aristocratic nose as she took a seat beside the unlit fireplace. “We may plot all we like, Cicely, but it will be our grandsons’ decisions as to whether or not they are equally as enamored of our choices of brides for them. Besides, our grandsons are all past the age of eight and twenty, two of them never having married, the third long a widower, and none of them giving so much as a glance in the direction of the sweet young things paraded before them with the advent of each new Season.”

“And can you blame them?” Lady Cicely frowned. “When those young girls seem to get sillier and sillier each year?”

“That silliness is not exclusive to the present.” The dowager duchess frowned. “My own daughter-in-law, but eighteen when Robert married her, was herself evidence of that very silliness when a year later she chose to name my only grandson Justin—to be coupled with St. Just! Which is why it is our duty to seek out more sensible women to be the future brides of our respective grandsons, and mothers of the future heirs.”

Lady Cicely did not look convinced. “It is only that Thorne has such an icy demeanor when angry...”

Lady Jocelyn gave her friend a consoling grimace. “I am afraid Edith is, as usual, perfectly correct. If we are to see our grandsons suitably married, then I fear we shall have to be the ones to arrange matters. No doubts they will all thank us for it one day. Besides,” she added coyly, “with the advent of my ball tomorrow evening, I do believe that I have already set things in motion regarding Christian’s future.”

“Indeed?” The dowager duchess raised steely brows.

“Oh, do tell!” Lady Cicely encouraged excitedly.

Ellie, listening attentively to the conversation while giving the outward appearance of concentrating upon her own sewing, was also curious to hear how Lady Jocelyn believed she had managed to arrange the securing of a wife for her grandson, the cynical and jaded—frighteningly so, in Ellie’s opinion!—Lord Christian Ambrose, Earl of Chambourne...

Chapter Two

“Tell me, how did you explain your...loss of innocence to your elderly husband on your wedding night?”

Sylvie’s spine stiffened upon hearing that soft and cruelly mocking voice just behind her as she stood alone in the candlelit ballroom in the Dowager Countess of Chambourne’s London home. A voice, and man, standing so near to her that the warmth of his breath slightly ruffled the loose curls at her temple and beside her pearl-adorned earlobe. So near that she could feel the heat of that gentleman’s body through the silk of her gown...

She would have been foolish not to have expected some response from Lord Christian Ambrose, Earl of Chambourne, after arriving at his grandmother’s ball some half an hour earlier and finding the countess’s coldly arrogant grandson at that lady’s side as he acted as host to her hostess.

Yes, Sylvie had known, and expected, when she had accepted the invitation to this ball, some sort of acknowledgment of their previous acquaintance from Christian, but she had not expected it to be quite so cruelly pointed in nature!

She stiffened her spine and drew in a slow and controlled breath before turning to face him, her outward expression one of calm disdain. At the same time, her pulse gave an alarmed leap as she had to look up at least a foot in order to meet familiar moss-green eyes set in a face of such stark male beauty it might have been carved by Michelangelo. Arrogant dark brows above those moss-green eyes, high cheekbones either side of a long and aristocratic nose, chiseled lips above a square and determined jaw, raven-dark locks falling rakishly across the wide and intelligent brow.

She did not need to lower her gaze to know that Christian’s black evening jacket had been tailored to fit like a glove over the wide expanse of his shoulders and muscled chest. His linen snowy white beneath a pale-silver waistcoat, black satin breeches encasing the long and muscled length of his thighs.

No, Sylvie did not need to look to know all of those things, having taken in Christian Ambrose’s appearance fully upon her arrival earlier. And cursed herself for noticing that Christian had only grown more handsome—disturbingly so—rather than less, in the years since she had last seen him.

Four years, to be precise. Years that had seen Sylvie change to the coolly composed woman she presented to Society this evening, rather than that young girl of eighteen summers who had been totally besotted with this gentleman’s rakish good looks.

That same young girl who had so trustingly given this man the innocence which he now dismissed so contemptuously...

* * *

To say that Christian had been disarmed to discover that Lady Sylviana Moorland, widowed Countess of Ampthill, was one of the guests at his grandmother’s ball this evening would have been deeply understating the matter. He could not have been more surprised if that upstart Napoleon, presently and hopefully forever incarcerated on St. Helena, had arrived on his grandmother’s doorstep brandishing an invitation!

Not that he had not been fully aware of Sylviana Moorland’s

return to Society, now that her year of mourning her husband was well and truly over—indeed, it was closer to two years since Colonel Lord Gerald Moorland had been struck down at the battle of Waterloo. And having heard that gentleman’s widow had returned to town at the start of the Season, Christian had taken the steps necessary to ensure that they were never in attendance at the same social function.

Steps that had been shattered this evening by his own grandmother, of all people!

Unintentionally, of course, for surely his grandmother was as much in ignorance of Christian’s previous acquaintance with Sylviana as was the rest of Society.

If anything Sylvie was more beautiful than Christian remembered, no longer that young girl on the brink of womanhood but now fully matured into a beautiful woman. The gold of her hair was arranged in artful curls upon her crown, with several loose tendrils at her temples and nape. Brown eyes surrounded by long dark lashes, and as deep and impenetrable as the golden molasses they resembled in her heart-shaped face; a small and delicate nose, with full and pouting lips above a small and determined chin. Her body was no longer coltishly slender, either, but lush and sensual, the fullness of her creamy breasts spilling over the low neckline of her green silk gown.

A gown of the same moss-green color as Christian’s eyes...Deliberately so?

The challenge in her dark gaze as she gazed up at him so

disdainfully would seem to imply so. “How unfortunate, my lord, that the passing of the years appears to have done nothing to improve your manners!”

Christian gave a hard and derisive smile. “Did you expect them to have done so?”

She eyed him coolly. “One might have hoped so, yes...”

“Why did you come here this evening, Sylvie?” He snapped his impatience with that coolness. “Or perhaps you prefer the grander Sylviana now that you are become a countess?” he added contemptuously as he saw the way she stiffened at his familiarity.

“I believe ‘my lady’ and ‘my lord’ are a more fitting address between two people of equal rank.” She had drawn herself up to her full height of just over five feet. “And I am here this evening because your grandmother invited me.”

Christian gave a derisive snort. “And are your invitations into Society so few and far between that you must needs accept this one?”

“On the contrary.” That golden gaze raked over him contemptuously. “Perhaps you have not heard, my lord, but I believe I am considered to be something of a matrimonial catch this Season, and as such in receipt of more invitations than I could ever hope to accept.”

His mouth twisted with disgust. “I had heard that your elderly husband left you a rich widow, yes. Which, no doubt, was your intention when you married a man so much older than yourself.”

Her eyes widened. “How dare you—”

“Oh, I believe, Sylvie, that you will find I dare much where you are concerned!” His eyes glittered dangerously. “A first lover’s privilege, shall we say?”

“No, we will not say!” All the color had now faded from her cheeks.

Christian gave a humorless smile. “What reason did you give your ancient husband when he discovered that there was no maidenhead for him to breach on your wedding night?”

It took every effort of will on Sylvie’s part not to flinch at the

unmistakable disdain in Christian Ambrose’s tone, and the hard censor of his moss-green gaze as it raked over her with slow contempt, from her blond curls down to her green-slippered feet, before shifting, deliberately lingering, on the firm swell of her breasts.

As if she were nothing more than a slab of meat on a butcher’s block that he was considering the merits of purchasing!

As if this man had no recollection of once upon a time slowly removing every article of clothing from her body—much more than once!—before making love to her as if she were the most delicate, precious thing upon this earth...

Once upon a time?

For Sylvie it was a different lifetime!

Certainly she was no longer that innocent young miss who had believed, in her naïveté, that Christian Ambrose, a gentleman six years her senior—in experience as well as years—returned the deep love she had felt for him. That trusting young girl had disappeared long, long ago, upon the realization that she had been nothing more than yet another female conquest to the rakish Christian Ambrose.

In her place was Sylviana Moorland, wealthy widow of Colonel Lord Gerald Moorland, a coolly composed woman of two and twenty, who felt as cynical toward love as the gentleman now standing before her gazing down at her so disdainfully.

Sylvie drew in a deep, controlling breath. “I—”

“I believe it would be best if we were to finish this conversation outside on the terrace,” Christian Ambrose grated harshly even as he grasped Sylvie’s arm and pulled her toward one of the sets of open French doors.

She resisted that painful hold upon her arm. “Unhand me at once, sir—” She broke off her protest abruptly as Christian turned to focus the full fierceness of his icy-cold moss-green eyes upon her, eyes that had once caused her to melt with passion but which she now knew only too well to be wary of. “People are staring at us...” she substituted lamely.

“Let them,” he grated unconcernedly as he continued to pull her effortlessly across the candlelit room, through the open doorway and out onto the dark seclusion of the terrace.

.

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