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Seduced by Sin
"She's beautiful, Maura."
Cradling the pink swaddled bundle in her arms close to her chest, Aimee lifted a corner of the blanket with a reverent hand so she could look down into the red, wrinkled face of her infant niece. Blue eyes peered up at her in drowsy curiosity, and rosebud lips puckered in a faint moue before three-month-old Fiona Elise Sutcliffe yawned and drifted off to sleep with her tiny fist curled about her aunt's finger.
Aimee felt her heart catch at such a trusting gesture, and she smiled in delight as she turned to her sister, who was perched on the garden bench next to her. "In fact," she continued, taking care to keep her tone at the level of a whisper, "I do believe that you've been blessed with the perfect baby."
Her face alight with maternal pride, Maura Sutcliffe, Countess of Hawksley, settled her loving gaze on her slumbering daughter. "I certainly like to think so. But then, I seem to remember you saying the exact same thing about Jilly's Thane and Roderick when they were born."
"And I meant every word of it." Aimee cast a glance in the direction of her red-haired nephews, who were busy playing with a regiment of toy soldiers in the shade of a nearby elm. "I don't think anyone could argue that Thane and Roddy just happen to be truly exceptional children."
An inelegant snort came from the figure seated on the bench across from them.
"If exceptional means stubborn, unruly, and thoroughly incorrigible, then I'm afraid I am forced to agree." The eldest of the trio of sisters, Jillian Daventry Monroe, shook her head with a rueful grimace. "My sonsdrive their nursemaid to the brink of handing in her notice on a fairly regular basis, and even Connor seems incapable of reining them in. I fear I am ready to declare myself a suitable candidate for Bedlam."
Her exasperated avowal drew a soft burst of laughter from Aimee and Maura, who were both more than well acquainted with the twins' headstrong temperaments.
It was an unusually pleasant September day in London, and the three of them were seated in the garden of Jillian's newly purchased Berkeley Square residence, taking advantage of the peaceful moments they had been afforded to indulge in a sisterly chat. Aimee had been looking forward to this visit ever since she had received Jilly's invitation to tea earlier that morning, and with the cheerful afternoon sunlight beaming down on her, bathing her in comforting warmth, the dark dreams that had haunted her for the past fortnight suddenly felt very far away.
But that was something she had promised herself she wouldn't think about. Not today. So she brushed aside the taunting visions that danced through her head and faced her sisters once again.
"I imagine it's only natural for children of Thane's and Roddy's age to get into a bit of mischief every now and then," she spoke up in loyal defense of her nephews. She had always shared a close bond with the boys and usually found their pranks humorous rather than dismaying. "And they are far more inquisitive and high-spirited than most three-year-olds."
Maura raised a brow. "They are also quite spoiled, thanks in no small part to their aunt Aimee."
Bowing her head, Aimee focused her attention on the baby nestled in her arms. The sight of those small fingers gripping hers filled her with a fierce yearning, making her more aware than ever of the aching feeling of emptiness that seemed to have become her constant companion of late.
"Perhaps I am a trifle overly indulgent," she admitted. "But as it is unlikely that I shall ever have a husband and children of my own, surely I am entitled to dote upon my niece and nephews on occasion."
Her words were followed by a tension-fraught silence, and she looked up just in time to see her sisters exchanging veiled glances.
Drat! She should have bitten her tongue before making such a comment. She knew how protective the members of her family had always been where she was concerned, and that hadn't changed with the passing of the years. Recently, they had all taken to eyeing her with a great deal of anxiety whenever she mentioned her unmarried state, almost as if they expected her to prostrate herself at their feet, weeping and wailing in abject misery due to her sad lack of prospects.
Little did they know that she had long ago resigned herself to her solitary fate.
"I do wish the two of you wouldn't behave as if I had just announced that I am suffering from some rare and fatal illness and expect to draw my last breath at any second," she said wryly. "It isn't as dire as all that."
"We can't help it, darling." Jillian frowned, making no attempt to conceal her distress. "It worries us when you say such things. After all, you are not some aged spinster who is so firmly on the shelf that there is no hope left for you. You are young yet, only nineteen, and you deserve to have a family of your own someday."
Pretending to occupy herself with the task of tucking the woolen blanket more snugly about Fiona's feet, Aimee gave a slight shrug, affecting a casual indifference that she was far from feeling. "I suppose some things simply aren't meant to be."
"Nonsense." This unequivocal assertion came from Maura, who folded her arms and regarded her younger sister with a shrewdness that was unnerving. "That is something you tell yourself because it makes it easier for you to continue on as you always have, hiding behind the walls of Papa's town house."
"I'm not hiding!" Aimee's vehement protest had her niece stirring restively in the crook of her elbow, and she paused, waiting to make sure the infant had settled back to sleep before going on in a much quieter voice. "I'm not."Seduced by Sin. Copyright © by Kimberly Logan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.