Authors: Christina Brooke
For Michael, with love
The team at St. Martin’s Press never fails to amaze me with their passion and commitment to publishing. In particular I’d like to thank my editor, Monique Patterson, who understands the romance genre and continues to challenge me to write better novels. Thanks also to the fabulous Holly Blanck and to everyone who plays a part in publishing the books I write.
To Helen Breitwieser, my gratitude for your professionalism and savvy, but most of all for your unwavering belief in me. I love working with you.
To Anna Campbell and Denise Rossetti, your friendship means even more to me than your critiquing skills, which is praise of no mean order. To Kim Castillo, dear friend and assistant extraordinaire, what would I do without you and Gil?
To the Romance Bandits, I hope we’re all still blogging together in the nursing home!
And of course, to my family and friends, who have to suffer through deadlines right along with me, I love you. Thank you for always being there for me.
Hertfordshire, England, 1816
Lady Cecily Westruther was not often at a loss for words. In fact, it was said by her family that she had far too many of them at her disposal and was all too ready to use them at every opportunity.
But the sheer audacity of this request shocked the speech right out of her.
Lavinia pouted and her china blue eyes darted sparks. “You are so disobliging, cousin! I ought to have known how it would be.”
Lavinia, Countess of Davenport, was a pretty, voluptuous blonde with a gaming habit and a penchant for dangerous men. Dangerous men who weren’t her husband, that was.
Cecily exchanged an exasperated look with the small pug dog who sat drooling into a pink satin cushion on top of an ornate chaise longue. The furniture in Lavinia’s boudoir was gilded and tasseled and braided to within an inch of its life. Lord, but the woman had terrible taste. It hurt the eyes to look upon all that pink and gold.
“I know what it is,” said Cecily. “The décor of this room has finally turned your brain. You ought to refurnish it in blue, dear cousin. A very calming color, blue. Then you will feel much more the thing.”
“Oh, come now, Cecily,” said Lavinia, her voice growing sharp. “Surely it is not such a great favor to ask.”
“Not a—?” Cecily found her voice and her words. Slowly, she said, “You want me to remain here after your houseguests leave so you can carry on an affair while your husband—
—is away from home.”
you be so vulgar?” sighed Lavinia. “Really, such plain speaking will get you into trouble one of these days. Lord Percy is a
that is all. I find him amusing
and with Bertram called away to Town, how
am I to occupy myself, pray?”
By visiting your tenants and seeing to their comfort,
By reading something to improve that wasteland of a mind of yours. By taking the smallest interest in anything or anyone but your own spoiled self.
“Don’t look at me like that,” snapped Lavinia. “Once you are married to your dull old duke, you will understand precisely how it is.”
“He is not old.” The response was automatic by now. Norland
old—he just appeared that way. And besides, Cecily had always been accounted mature for her age.
But she refrained from voicing the argument. It was true that she harbored no romantic feelings toward Norland. On the other hand, she had better things to do with her time than to bed an endless succession of men behind her husband’s back.
She had plans for her future that did not rest upon the opinions or permission or even the participation of any man. Except as a means by which she might get her hands on part of her inheritance, of course. If she chose not to marry, she’d be obliged to wait until she was thirty to come into her fortune, and that didn’t bear thinking about. Besides, married women had so much more freedom than unmarried ones.
Of course she understood how marriages of convenience were supposed to work. Equally, she knew Norland would keep his current mistress after the knot was tied. But the sort of lifestyle pursued by countless bored aristocrats of the ton was not for her. She detested hypocrisy in any form. If she followed Lavinia’s example, she’d soon grow to despise herself for such sneaking, sordid behavior.
And now Lavinia wished Cecily to be a party to duping Bertram. Well, she would not do it, no matter what threats Lavinia held over her head.
It wasn’t as if she owed Lavinia any favors.
Returning to Garraway Hall since Cousin Bertram inherited it from Cecily’s brother was always a painful experience. Ordinarily she’d inveigle her cousin Rosamund into coming with her, but Rosamund was busy with her new husband.
At least, thought Cecily, she might congratulate herself on suffering through this tedious house party with good grace.
The house party culminated in this evening’s ball. Everyone left tomorrow—everyone save Lord Percy, it seemed—and Cecily could at last return to the London residence of her guardian, the Duke of Montford. There, she would wash the bad taste of Bertram and Lavinia from her mouth with a good dose of her more congenial relatives’ company.
“I’m afraid I could not stay even if I wanted to, Lavinia. Montford has accepted all sorts of engagements on my behalf. The season proper is about to begin, after all. Besides, if you are intent on this scheme, you need a matron to chaperone you, not a debutante.”
“I suppose you are right,” said Lavinia, toying with the scent bottle on her dressing table. “Could you lend me Tibby, then?”
“No.” As if she could pass her companion around like a handkerchief! “Why don’t you try Mrs. Arbuckle? As long as you feed her well, I’m sure she will look the other way.”
“I could, I suppose.” Lavinia rose and moved gracefully to stand before the looking glass. “If you will not oblige me, I fear I must.” Lavinia bit her lush lower lip. “If only she will be discreet.”
She tweaked the lace at her bosom, then swept delicate fingertips over her impressive décolletage. A dreamy smile flitted across her face, as if she recalled something pleasant.
She transferred her attention to Cecily. The blue eyes widened, then narrowed, homing in on the necklace Cecily wore. A double strand of exquisite pink pearls. They were among the few jewels her mother had left her that the duke thought it suitable for a girl in her first season to wear.
Cecily knew a sudden foreboding and wished she had not worn this necklace tonight.
remember what I meant to tell you, Cecily,” said Lavinia. “I discovered Jonathon’s diary in an old trunk in the attic the other day. Lord, it must have lain up there gathering dust these nine years or more.”
Lavinia’s careless words came at Cecily like a fist.
The well of grief that always lay inside her seemed to swell until it flowed into her chest, her throat, the backs of her eyes.
It was a few moments before Cecily could speak. “His diary?”
Her voice scraped. She knew she ought to try to sound as unconcerned as Lavinia, but she couldn’t smooth the rawness of longing from her tone.
Jonathon. The dearest and best brother in the world.
When Cecily had inquired years ago, Lavinia told her that she’d burned all Jonathon’s papers. How like Lavinia to tell her such a spiteful lie.
With Jonathon’s death, Cecily’s world had been upended. Suddenly everyone she’d ever loved was gone. Everything she’d taken for granted as hers for eleven years became theirs—Bertram’s and Lavinia’s.
And nothing could rid Lavinia of the notion that even the jewels Cecily rightfully inherited from her mother belonged to her as the new countess.
“Yes,” said Lavinia. “I thought perhaps you should have the diary.” Her attention never wavered from Cecily’s necklace. “Would you
to have it, do you think?”
Immediately, Cecily understood. Her hand stole up to her throat in a gesture that was absurdly protective. She fingered the smooth, round pearls that had grown warm against her skin.
Her heart revolted at the mere thought of Lavinia wearing them. The necklace was more than an exquisite, expensive piece, more than a mere keepsake. These pearls had absorbed the warmth of her mother’s skin, just as they did Cecily’s own at this very moment. Each small, lustrous globe contained a hint of her mother’s essence.
A romantical notion. An uncharacteristically sentimental one. And how could she hold on to it when Jonathon’s diary lay almost within her grasp?
“How kind of you, Lavinia.” With an effort, Cecily kept her voice even. “Will you show me the diary now, please?” Perhaps if she ignored the clear implication of Lavinia’s manner, she might negotiate a different price.
Lavinia pursed her lips. Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t see why I should when you won’t do the smallest thing for me.”
Risking her own reputation to guard Lavinia’s did not count as a small thing in Cecily’s book. But it didn’t take a soothsayer to predict where this conversation would lead. Cecily couldn’t immediately think of anything else she might offer in lieu of the pearls. Besides, Lavinia was so capricious, she might burn the diary if Cecily didn’t instantly fall in with her wishes.
Her mouth went dry. “What if … What if I lent you my pearls for the evening?”
Lavinia looked thoughtful. “That is tempting, but …
evening does not seem quite enough, does it?”
Cecily licked her lips. Surely Lavinia didn’t intend her to give her the pearls outright. Even if she wished to do so, she couldn’t. Her maid would notice their absence as soon as she took an inventory of Cecily’s jewel box. Once the duke discovered the loss, there’d be hell to pay.
“All right, then,” she said reluctantly. “You can have them until you return to Town.” She would have to make up some tale to satisfy Saunders.
Lavinia had never concealed her emotions well. Avarice and cold calculation made her pretty features as hard as the looking glass that reflected them.
Cecily feared Lavinia would try to drive a harder bargain, but instead, the countess nodded. “Put them on for me, will you? I’ll wear them tonight.”
The thought of the delicate shell pink hue of those pearls against Lavinia’s mint green silk bodice made Cecily shudder to the bottom of her fashionable soul. But she reached behind her own nape to unfasten the diamond clasp. She must seal the bargain quickly, before Lavinia demanded more.
It made her heartsick to lend her mother’s pearls to such a woman as her cousin’s wife. But for that small connection to Jonathon, she would pay the price.