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A Matter of Temptation
Robert Hawthorne stared at a face he'd not seen in eight long years.
A face he hardly recognized. When last he'd looked at it, he'd seen nothing except the unmarred countenance of a life untried—features that revealed an absence of lines, character, and depth. A face that had yet to be written upon. Unfortunately, it now told an incredible tale of unbelievable cruelty.
The deep creases spreading out from the corners of the eyes and mouth had been shaped by agony, agony brought on not necessarily by physical discomfort, but rather by emotional upheaval—which could carve just as deeply, and in many instances, more so, leaving the mark of its visitation visible to any who dared to look. Yes, the physical and emotional torment suffered was as clearly evident as the passage of time.
Black whiskers that had been as fine as the downy hair on a newborn's head were now thick, coarse, and scraggly. The skin was pale to the point of almost appearing sickly, but then how could he expect it to look any differently when it had not known the direct touch of the sun in years?
That unhealthy pallor might cause a bit of a problem.
But in studying the visage before him, Robert decided it was the eyes that shocked him the most. Not the color, a blue that matched the hue of a deepening sky just before sunset gave way to night. No, the color remained exactly as he remembered, but the pathway the eyes offered to the soul had changed considerably.
They reflected a journey of devastating betrayal. And that, too, might cause a bit of a problem,because a man could seldom hide the truth of his character revealed by his eyes. Well, not a good man anyway.
Robert shifted his gaze away from the reflection in the mirror he held to the man he'd secured to the bed with silk sashes he'd taken from several dressing gowns hanging in the wardrobe. The man's eyes were the same brilliant blue, but they burned with fury mingling with hatred. He wondered why he'd never recognized the emotions before when he'd looked into those eyes.
And he had looked into them—for the first eighteen years of his life. Surely during one of those glances, he should have seen the monster who dwelled within.
"Why, John?" he asked, his voice scratchy from lack of use after years of not being allowed to speak. "Why did you have me locked away? What did I do to deserve such abuse?"
The monogrammed handkerchief that Robert had stuffed into John's mouth prevented him from doing anything more than growling, and perhaps that was a bit unfair, but Robert didn't want to risk his brother calling out and rousing the servants. He doubted John would provide a truthful answer anyway.
Yet the questions had haunted Robert for more than three thousand days: while he'd paced his cell, while he'd lain in his hammock, while he'd listened to the screams of men as they'd succumbed to insanity's tantalizing promise of freedom.
It was frightening how often he'd been tempted to give in to the siren's call of madness himself. But he'd managed to escape, and there he was, at long last, facing a nemesis he'd never known he possessed until it was too late, now with only a vague idea of what he would do to regain what had been stolen from him.
He couldn't deny that John had always been a bit of a scamp, laughing gaily at his own delightful wickedness, his transgressions tolerated as harmless pranks. The man—in his youth—had fooled them all. But Robert drew no comfort from the fact that he hadn't been alone in misjudging John.
He tried to find satisfaction in his captive's attempt to escape the bonds that held his wrists and ankles secured to the four posts of the magnificent bed in which he'd been born, but all Robert felt was deep and resounding disappointment. As though he gazed upon his own soul and found it withered and empty, void of any worth.
"I thought we were more than brothers. I considered us friends. We shared confidences. I would have trusted you with my life. More than that, I would have willingly sacrificed . . ." Inhaling sharply through clenched teeth, he turned away, the pain almost too great to bear. He'd loved his brother—remarkably, he still did in that strange way that affected those bound by blood—and that unconditional love was the very reason that the betrayal sliced so deeply into his heart and flayed it raw.
If he couldn't trust John, then whom could he trust?
He knew a moment of gratitude because his parents were no longer living, would never know the truth about everything that had transpired, but his gratefulness was fleeting, like life, and he wished only that he could return to the wondrous days of his youth when his worries had consisted of nothing more than meeting his father's lofty expectations—something he'd achieved with amazing regularity.
If he thought too long on his present circumstance, he began to feel adrift, losing his sense of purpose. Regaining what was his by right was crucial, not only on a personal level, but on an ancestral one as well. He couldn't turn his back on what duty, honor, and those who'd come before him demanded was not only his due but his obligation to set right. He owed the past as well as the future to stay on course.
Drawing on a reserve of strength he'd not known he possessed until everything had been stolen from him, he concentrated on the immediate task facing him, knowing it was imperative that he complete it as quickly as possible.
"Stop thrashing about, John. You'll only hurt yourself, and trust me when I offer you this bit of advice born of experience: you don't want to be in a weakened state when you receive your just reward. Rest assured that I plan to grant you a bit more mercy than you showed me, but I must take steps to protect myself, my inheritance, and my heirs."A Matter of Temptation. Copyright © by Lorraine Heath. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.