Secrets of a Lady

Secrets of a Lady

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by Tracy Grant

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In the glittering world of Regency London, where gossip is exchanged—and reputations ruined—with the tilt of a fan, Mélanie Fraser is the perfect wife. Devoted to her husband, Charles, the grandson of a duke, she is acknowledged as society's most charming hostess. But just as the elegant façade of Regency London hides a dark side, Mélanie

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In the glittering world of Regency London, where gossip is exchanged—and reputations ruined—with the tilt of a fan, Mélanie Fraser is the perfect wife. Devoted to her husband, Charles, the grandson of a duke, she is acknowledged as society's most charming hostess. But just as the elegant façade of Regency London hides a dark side, Mélanie is not what she seems. She has a secret: one that could destroy her perfect jewel-box life forever . . . and the cost to keep it is an exquisite heirloom ring surrounded by legend and power. The search for it will pull Mélanie and Charles into a gritty underworld of gin-soaked brothels, elegant gaming hells, and debtors' prisons. In this maze of intrigue, deception is second nature and betrayal can come far too easily . . .

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Rannoch/Fraser Series , #1
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Secrets of a Lady

Chapter One

"All the world may be a stage, but sometimes the dialogue's too bloody ridiculous for any self-respecting playwright." Charles Fraser set down his candle and shrugged out of his evening coat, sparing a silent curse for the close-fitting fashions of the day. "What is it about diplomatic receptions that always brings on the most god-awful lapses in tact?"

"Don't tell me you expect diplomats to be diplomatic, darling." Mélanie unwound the voluminous cashmere folds of her shawl from her shoulders and began to peel off her gloves. "That would be much too logical."

Charles tossed his coat over a tapestry chair back, turned up the crystal Agrand lamp that had been left lit in readiness for them, and moved to the fireplace. They never had his valet and Mélanie's maid wait up, but a fire was laid in the grate. He picked up the poker and stirred the coals.

"What particularly appalling dialogue caught your attention tonight?" Mélanie asked.

Charles turned from the fire to look at his wife. She was sitting at her dressing table, her feet drawn up onto the striped damask chair so she could remove her evening slippers. Her glossy dark ringlets fell about her face, exposing the curve of her neck. The pearl-embroidered skirt of her gown was tucked up as she unwound the ivory satin ribbons that crisscrossed her silk-stockinged ankles. Strange, when he knew every inch of her, that his breath still caught at the sight. "Lady Bury told Ned Ellison that his wife looked charming dancing with Peter Grantham and hadn't they been dancing to the same waltz at the Cowpers' only two nights ago?"

Mélanie looked up, one slipper dangling by the ribbons from her fingers. "Oh, dear. That would seem glaringly obvious on any stage. Though if Ellison doesn't know his wife's sleeping with Peter Grantham, he's the last person in London not to be in on the secret."

Charles moved to the satinwood table that held his great-grandmother's Irish crystal decanter and glasses. "Poor bastard. One of those mad fools besotted with his own wife." He shot her a glance. "Not that I'd know anything about that."

She returned the glance, a glint in her eyes. "Of course not."

He took the stopper from the decanter. Ellison's gaze, as he watched his wife circle the floor with her lover, had stirred images of a past Charles would just as soon forget. He paused, the heavy cut-glass stopper in his hand, an uncomfortable weight in his memory.

Mélanie flexed her foot. "I rather think his adoration may be the problem. Too much can be smothering. Literally. Think of Othello."

Charles jerked himself out of the past. "Ellison doesn't strike me as the violent sort." He poured an inch of whisky into two glasses.

"He's a quiet brooder." She dropped her slippers to the floor and got to her feet. "They're the ones who snap."

Seven years of marriage and her perceptiveness about people could still surprise him. He set down the decanter and replaced the stopper. "Am I the sort who'd snap?"

She turned from lighting the tapers on her dressing table, laughter in her eyes. "Controlled, dispassionate Charles Fraser? Oh, no, darling. Anyone who's been to bed with you knows you aren't nearly as cold as you let on."

He walked over to her, carrying the glasses of whisky. "So I'm the perfect sort of husband to betray?"

"Not quite." Her gaze was appraising, but her lips trembled with humor. "You're much too intelligent, dearest. You'd be damnably difficult to deceive."

He put one of the glasses into her hand. "Sounds as though you've considered it."

She leaned against the dressing table and took a meditative sip of whisky. "Well, I might." Her eyes, a color between blue agate and the green of Iona marble, gleamed in her pale face. "Except that it would be quite impossible to find anyone who's your equal, my love."

He regarded her, aware of a smile playing about his mouth. "Good answer."

"Yes, I rather thought it was."

He lifted one hand and ran his fingers down the familiar line of her throat. The puffed gossamer that was an excuse for a sleeve slipped from her shoulder. His fingers molded to her skin. The scent of her perfume filled his senses, roses and vanilla and some other fragrance that still remained elusive after all these years.

A lump of coal fell from the grate and hissed against the fender. He swore, shrugged his shoulders, and went to pick up the poker.

"You warned me about it," Mélanie said from the dressing table. "The night you proposed."

He pushed the coal into the grate. "Warned you about what?"

"That—in your words—you weren't a demonstrative man. That you'd thought you'd never marry, your parents had set a miserable example, and you weren't sure how good you'd be at it."

He looked at her over his shoulder. "I didn't really say that."

"You did." She curled up, catlike, on her dressing table chair. "You pointed out all the potential pitfalls with scrupulous care. It might have been a white paper you'd drawn up for the ambassador on the advantages and disadvantages of a treaty. You didn't even try to kiss me."

"I should think not. That might have risked biasing your judgment. One way or the other." He returned the poker to its stand. "Of course, if I had, perhaps you'd have given me an answer straightaway, instead of going off to think about it for the most uncomfortable three days I have ever spent."

"Charles, given what you've been through in your life, that has to be hyperbole."

He kept his gaze on her face. "Not necessarily."

She unfastened her pearl earrings without breaking eye contact. "Terrified I'd accept?"

"Mel, the most terrifying thing I can imagine is life without you."

Secrets of a Lady. Copyright © by Tracy Grant. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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