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A Sisters of Scandal Novella
By Lily Maxton, Nina Bruhns
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Lily Maxton
All rights reserved.
Charles Edward Lucien Grey, Earl of Thornhill, had died when he was thrown from his horse in what everyone called a tragic riding accident. Elizabeth, the Countess of Thornhill, could have predicted her husband would meet his end in such a manner. He'd always bought the fastest thoroughbreds and raced across the country at breakneck speeds ... so it wasn't surprising to her that he actually had broken his neck one misty afternoon when his horse threw him.
She'd moved back into her parents' house with her unmarried sisters, unwilling to stay at Wycombe Manor, the Thornhill seat, by herself. It was a vast, empty house that had never held many happy memories, even when her husband was alive. But even if she had been willing to stay on, he had mismanaged the estate so badly that by the time the creditors had gone through it, there wasn't much money left for her to live on.
She forced herself through the required mourning, first wearing all black and then whites and grays and washed-out lavenders. She didn't go out to society functions; she didn't dance. It was a sort of half-life, like clouds marring a summer day — unfulfilled, unrealized. But now that half-life was over. The clouds were past.
"What colors do you prefer, my lady?" the dressmaker asked as she took measurements.
Elizabeth stared at the rows of fabric — bright, shimmering, splendid. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed color until this moment. A little huff of laughter came to her lips. She didn't feel dignified. Certainly not like a countess. She felt as giddy as a girl with her first beau, simply because mourning was over and it was time to reintroduce color to her wardrobe.
"All of them," was the very sincere and very unhelpful answer she gave. Particularly because she was trying to be economical and had decided to purchase only two or three new gowns.
The dressmaker paused with a half smile. "You would look very well in light blue, I think."
Yes, she'd always worn pale blues as a debutante. She was milky-skinned and fair-haired with blue eyes — they'd suited her perfectly. The men had admired her. Charles had coveted her ... for a time. She'd been the toast of the ton.
She started to nod, to accept, but something made her stop. What had that admiration done for her? Yes, she'd married an earl — a man who'd looked at her like a prized possession until she'd proved she wasn't perfect, and then he'd barely deigned to look at her at all. The admiration of others couldn't fill a silent home, nor give ease to a troubled mind. It was time to do something for herself.
"Not blue. Perhaps —" She hesitated. "I have a fondness for red."
She shook her head. She was sick of darkness. "No, bright, like ..." She cast around in her memory for something. "Poppies."
"Poppy red," the woman muttered, turning to browse through the fabrics. "Very well."
Elizabeth left the dressmaker's shop happier and more carefree than she'd felt in a very long while. She walked right past her waiting carriage on a whim. She would walk home.
When one of her footmen noticed, he rushed after her, trying to unfold an umbrella.
"There's no need for that," she said.
He glanced at the sky, looking at the dark clouds dubiously.
"Return to Middleton House," she commanded. "I will be there shortly."
Maybe she would and maybe she wouldn't. The day seemed ripe with possibilities, and it had been a long time since she'd been caught in the rain.
Somewhere on Piccadilly the pleasant drizzle turned into a downpour. The opening of the skies brought colder air, and she stood on the pavement shivering as rain drenched her to the bone. And yes, thinking it might have been a mistake, after all, to send the carriage away.
She ducked into the first door she saw. And collided with a very solid shape.
The solid — and warm, had she mentioned warm? — shape took a step back and features that had been blurred came into view: hazel eyes — a lovely meeting of green and gold — under thick eyebrows, a long, straight nose, and firm, full lips. The lips curved into a smile. "Pardon me, miss." The voice was as deep and rich as chocolate. It reverberated around her insides like someone had just played a low note on a pipe organ.
She didn't bother to correct him. "No, it was my fault." She wasn't entirely comfortable with the amount of space he'd left between them. She took a step back. When she did, she noticed his striped waistcoat had two damp spots on it ... exactly where her breasts had pushed against his chest. "Oh!"
He followed her mortified gaze. And when he looked up, his grin took on a wickedly amused flavor.
She knew. That look told her everything she needed to know. This man was a Rake, emphasis on the capital R. She'd been in society long enough to be acquainted with them. And long enough to know they were best avoided.
"If you'll excuse me." She turned. Then stopped at the sound of his voice.
"It's still raining."
Indeed it was. She saw the torrents of it through tall sash windows, heard it pinging against the roof.
"And you're shivering."
She wrapped her arms around herself, as if she could stop shaking by sheer force of will. "I'm not."
"Liar," he said softly, with a strange tenderness, as though he'd just offered an endearment. "If you stay, I can have a pot of tea readied, and you can sit by the fire."
He was the devil, offering such temptations when chills were running up and down her spine. She should simply reach out, push open the door, and leave. And catch her death from the cold? She might be wary, but she was also practical.
She turned back. "You work in this establishment?" She glanced past him, at bookshelves that went from floor to ceiling stacked full with volumes. The air was tinged with the earthy smells of vellum and parchment, and the shop bustled with activity. Both men and women browsed the stacks or stood by the fire or spoke to the workers at the desk.
She'd been here before — Cameron's Lending Library and Booksellers. In the past few years, it had become quite popular.
A fresh wave of shivers racked her. "Very well."
She followed him up a winding staircase with a gleaming mahogany balustrade. Without the hum of the patrons around them, the air turned still and silent. She paused. "Where are you taking me?"
"The offices." He cast a glance over his shoulder, lifting an eyebrow. "We don't serve tea in the main room with the books."
"Of course," she said, as though she'd suspected it all along, when all she'd really been suspicious of was that he was leading her somewhere private in the hope of taking liberties.
He opened the door to a study with a desk, a round table, and a sash window. The desk looked large in the small room. All that rested on it was a stack of blank parchment, a quill and inkwell, and a pair of round spectacles.
Organized, for a rake.
He pulled out a chair for her, setting it next to the fireplace. He used a poker to stir up a larger flame in the coals. "If you'll wait here, I'll return with the tea."
Elizabeth leaned as close to the fire as she could without falling in. The warm air seeped through her moist garments, causing her skin to prickle. She glanced toward the desk again. Did he actually wear those black-rimmed spectacles? She'd thought a man like him would be too vain to obscure his face.
She stiffened when she heard heavy footfalls outside the door a few minutes later. He came in carrying a silver tea tray. He set the tray on the desk a moment, then lifted the table and lowered it next to her as though it barely weighed anything before placing the tray in the middle.
Steam curled from the teapot. She didn't hesitate to pour a full cup and wrap her chilled hands around it. When she sipped, the hot liquid forged a trail of fire through her stomach. The man didn't take a seat; he remained standing, practically at her elbow.
"Thank you, Mr. ..." She trailed off, waiting for a name.
Tea nearly sloshed over the rim of her cup as she started. "Cale Cameron? The owner?"
"You told me you worked here."
"I do work here," he pointed out with a smile.
"You know that wasn't what I —" She stopped herself. "I shouldn't be here. If you do not mind my being blunt, Mr. Cameron, I've heard of your reputation."
"My reputation?" he asked, a little too innocently. "What exactly have you heard?"
She met his amused gaze squarely. "You seduce women for fun."
He frowned, but it didn't look very sincere. "That's slander. More often, they try to seduce me."
"My apologies," he said in a demure voice. It didn't fool her for one moment. "How is the tea?"
"A little weak," she informed him coolly.
"I have brandy," he said, offering his own challenge in return.
"Mr. Cameron, it's hardly proper for me to drink brandy, especially in the presence of a man."
"That's a shame," he said. "You might enjoy it."
"I doubt that."
The corner of his mouth twitched. After a moment's pause, he asked, "Do you like to read?"
Men didn't ask her that question very often. And her mother had always advised her not to show interest in intellectual pursuits, anyway. It took her a minute to answer. "Yes, very much. I prefer poetry."
"Do you have a membership here?"
She shook her head, bemused.
"I'll give you one at no cost," he said.
She stared at him. "As kind as that is, it's not necessary."
"Why not? You'd be able to borrow any book you like."
"I already have a membership somewhere else," she lied, hoping he'd drop the matter.
His eyes narrowed, making him look rather ruthless. More like a pirate or a highwayman than a bookseller. "With whom?"
"You're quite persistent, aren't you?"
"If I wasn't, I would never have been successful."
"Yes, I can see that," she said.
"So you won't tell me?"
"Why? What will you do to the poor man?"
Instead of appearing offended, he smiled slightly. "I'll have you know I'm a very respected bookseller."
"Being respected isn't the same as being respectable."
"That's drawing a very thin line," he said with a trace of humor. "And you seem to be hinting, not so subtly, that you don't think I'm respectable."
"Not at all. I know you're not respectable."
"And yet, we've never had the pleasure of being acquainted."
"As I said, your reputation precedes you." And was clearly well earned.
"So you're willing to judge me based on rumor?"
"Yes," she said, taking another sip of tea. She wanted to smile.
"For shame. Do you want to know the truth?" he asked. One hand curled around the back of her chair in a gesture that was oddly intimate. He stood far too close to her. On one side she felt the warmth of the fire, on the other, the warmth from his body.
"The truth of what?"
"I do hope you're not trying to shock me, Mr. Cameron."
"No, but I will speak honestly with you."
She cocked her head to the side. How long had it been since a man had spoken honestly with her? Never? She was intrigued, despite her better judgment. "Tell me the truth, then."
"I like women, but I doubt I've bedded more of them than the average bachelor who's exceeded the age of thirty unmarried. My mistake was in having an affair with a duchess."
Heat swept her cheeks. This wasn't supposed to shock her? "Indeed?" she said with a tongue that felt clumsy. She tried to sound coolly polite, but she wasn't sure she managed.
"She wasn't very tight-lipped about our relationship. Word spread that Cale Cameron, a bookseller of unknown origins, had dared to warm the bed of a duchess. My reputation as a horrible, or more to the point, audacious, rake was sealed."
"You don't seem terribly upset," she observed.
"It amuses me, I suppose. If I actually let myself be bothered by everything that was said of me, I would probably go mad."
"Did you love her?" The question slipped out before she could think better of it.
He didn't hesitate. "No."
"Then why did you ...? If you knew she was a duchess, why did you ...?"
He caught on to what she meant to ask, even through her floundering. "She was above me. In every possible way," he said, brutally honest.
Elizabeth was both repulsed and oddly fascinated by the way he spoke to her. But she'd asked for his honesty. She wasn't about to turn missish because he'd given it to her.
"I wanted to pluck the highest fruit from the tree."
A little huff of air escaped her lips. "Why didn't you just seduce the Queen, then?"
He grinned. "Perhaps I would have, if I'd had the chance to meet her. A little old for my taste, though."
Elizabeth nearly rolled her eyes. She didn't, obviously — it was too vulgar a gesture for a countess. "You must be rather certain of your charms," she said, with no small degree of sarcasm.
He glanced down at his chest, patted it with his hands. "Odd. I don't see any blood."
"Your barbed words. I'm surprised they didn't tear out my heart."
This time she did roll her eyes. "You are a ridiculous man, Mr. Cameron."
"But I made you smile," he said softly.
She focused on her hand, where it lay in her lap. She wished she had a fan she could flick open to hide her stunned expression.
She liked him.
She liked him.
It had been a very long time since she'd felt such an instant affinity with someone, and she couldn't recall ever having spoken so openly with another person. But the fact that she'd just come out of mourning, and the man who was making her smile was Cale Cameron, bookseller and rake, plucking the highest fruit from the tree — it all made her feel terribly vulnerable. Achingly vulnerable.
She set her teacup down with a clang and quickly rose from her chair. Her head nearly bumped into his chin. "Thank you for the tea, Mr. Cameron," she said, looking at the spots on his waistcoat that still hadn't faded, "but I fear I must leave."
"Wait," he said, stopping her with a hand at her elbow. "What is your name?"
The heat of his touch arrested her. She stood staring at his strong fingers encircling her arm, and her mouth went dry. She suddenly felt very out of her element. More like a naïve girl than a sophisticated countess. "Elizabeth," she murmured.
He pulled gently, drawing her closer. "Your full name?"
She twisted out of his grip, her heart hammering. "I really must be going." Then, with the last of her dignity in shreds, she darted away like a frightened hare.
Her pace didn't slow until she'd reached the main level of the bookshop and was in view of the other patrons. And then she collected herself, smoothed down her damp, wrinkled dress, and left the store, determined to push the charming Cale Cameron far from her thoughts.CHAPTER 2
"Lord Thornhill is here," Elizabeth's mother, Lady Middleton, hissed in her ear, eyes narrowing at a flash of black tails on the opposite side of the crush.
The family was attending the popular Fairchild ball that evening. Lady Middleton, Elizabeth, and her two younger sisters stood near the refreshment table looking on as other guests danced a quadrille, weaving and turning under the chandeliers. The ladies' best jewels glittered in the candlelight, and the gentlemen looked elegant and understated in their dark evening attire.
Elizabeth's hands clenched in the skirt of her poppy-red dress at Thornhill's name. Not her husband, she had to remind herself through a sudden rush of numbness. But her husband's cousin, the new earl, returned from his travels.
In three years of marriage, Elizabeth hadn't succeeded in producing an heir ...or in having any children, for that matter. This man, whom she hadn't seen in what felt like a lifetime, now bore her late husband's title.
Anne, her middle sister, looked at their mother. "It took him quite long enough," she said disapprovingly.
Lady Middleton frowned at Anne. "He'll surely pay his respects to Elizabeth when he finds out she's in attendance. It's the gentlemanly thing to do."
"If you can even call him a gentleman," Anne said. "He should have come back as soon as he inherited."
Olivia's eyes brightened as she let her imagination run wild. "What if he's become a complete rake who's been scouring the world looking for women to ruin?"
Excerpted from The Affair by Lily Maxton, Nina Bruhns. Copyright © 2014 Lily Maxton. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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