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The Second Seduction
By Shelley Munro Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One East Sussex, England, 1720.
Lucien studied the elderly man standing by the window - the man who claimed him as son.
The family, the faithful servants, all backed up the Earl of St. Clare's assertion, but the role didn't feel right. Not to Lucien. Living in the gloomy pile of rocks they called Castle St. Clare made him edgy. Uneasy.
They were mistaken.
He was not the Earl of St. Clare's son.
The idea was laughable. Him, the long lost heir, Viscount Hastings. He recalled none of what they told him.
"Hastings, the carriage is coming." The earl stepped away from the window. "Your betrothed has arrived."
Lucien rose from a square-backed chair and flicked the lace at his cuffs. "My name is Lucien."
The earl ruffled up like a feisty bantam cock. "Stuff and nonsense! You were christened George. If it's good enough for the King, it's good enough for you."
Lucien strolled past shelves of books and paused to finger an amber figurine from the Orient. From what he'd heard since his arrival in England, people disapproved of the King who hailed from Hanover. The man didn't even speak English. Lucien looked the earl straight in the eye. "My name is Lucien," he repeated, his tone implacable and determined. "Lucien. Not George. Not Hastings."
"Dammit, boy. You have the look of the forebears. Why do you persist with yourgainsaying?" The Earl of St. Clare's voice held a trace of pleading. "Can't you see it in the family portraits?"
Lucien grimaced. If he studied the portraits with one eye shut and the other squinted, certainly there were similarities. He replaced the figurine and stalked across a blue Persian rug to gaze out a window overlooking the courtyard.
The study door flew open. Lucien whirled then relaxed when the honorable Charles Soulden bounded in. "Hastings ..." He faltered as he intercepted Lucien's glare. "I mean, Lucien! The carriage comes with your betrothed."
"So I'm told." Lucien sauntered toward Charles, his newly discovered cousin. "By all means," he murmured. "Let us greet the woman brave enough to wed me ... the man with no memory."
* * *
The carriage swayed and bounced over the uneven road. With each successive pothole, the driver cursed more colorfully. Rosalind gripped a carriage strap, the excessive jolting doing nothing for her frazzled nerves. At the completion of this journey, she would meet her betrothed - for the first time. Questions pounded inside her head. Would he like her? And would he accept her, despite her ... faults?
Beside Rosalind, her childhood friend and maidservant, Mary, pressed her nose to the carriage window. "Oh, miss! I think we're almost there."
Rosalind tensed at the news. She forced a smile then bit back a cry of alarm as the carriage lurched. Grabbing the seat to avoid a tumble to the floor, she righted herself and slid along the seat toward Mary. "Can you see Castle St. Clare?" She peered out the dusty window.
A snarling gargoyle appeared inches from their faces. Rosalind's breath escaped with a horrified gasp. Beside her, Mary trembled and jerked away from the window.
She clutched at Rosalind's forearm, her voice rising to a squeak. "Miss Rosalind, do you think we should turn around and return to Stow-on-the-Wold?"
Mary's dread, her frenzied thoughts, bombarded Rosalind and she shrugged from her maid's grip to break the connection.
"The earl is expecting us, Mary. We can't go back."
They sped past a rundown gatehouse, the carriage jolting from one pothole to the next. As they clattered through a stone gateway, Rosalind glimpsed the gargoyle's twin. It leered from atop a stone wall and seemed alive, as if it could step from its granite prison on a whim.
The carriage made a sharp swing to the right, the coachman cursing his team of straining horses as the gradient increased sharply. The whip cracked. Without warning, the interior of the carriage turned pitch black. Mary yelped and clutched at Rosalind again.
Rosalind swallowed her gasp, rearranged the skirts of her best blue and goldtrimmed riding habit, and patted Mary on the arm.
"It's all right," she soothed, yet the hand hidden in her skirts trembled. For a moment, the temptation to turn back teased at her, then she recalled the situation she'd return to - relations who resented her presence. The reality pushed aside her fears. Ugly gargoyles or not, she silently vowed to continue her journey.
An object scraped along the carriage sides, sending a shiver down her spine. Mary's piercing shriek echoed within the confines of the enclosed space. Goosebumps rose on Rosalind's arms. Her gaze whipped about the carriage. The noise repeated with an eerie echo.
"Hush, Mary," Rosalind snapped, her heart pounding so loudly she could barely hear herself think. Mustering every shred of courage, she pressed her nose to the cold glass of the window.
This was meant to be a grand adventure, her last opportunity to seize a secure future. Rosalind, the afflicted one, the one the people of Stow-on-the-Wold whispered would never catch a husband. The cousin destined to stay on the shelf. This was her chance to prove them all wrong. Despite her accursed gift.
Leaves swept against the windows, followed by the same scraping sound. The cold knot of fear in her stomach twisted. A flash of ghostly fingers waved before her startled eyes. A branch. That was surely a branch. The fear clogging her throat lessened, and she relaxed against the plush cushions of the St. Clare coach with a tremulous sigh of relief.
"It's a branch," she said to Mary. "We are driving along an avenue of trees. I fear they need trimming to let in the sunlight."
"Are you sure, Miss Rosalind?"
"Of course I'm sure." Rosalind made her voice firm and decisive. "Look out the window. You can make out the branches if you look hard enough." As she spoke, the darkness in the carriage lifted. Then they were in daylight again. "There, what did I tell you?"
Mary grabbed her arm. She tugged. Frantically. "Miss. Miss. Look!"
Rosalind turned. Her mouth dropped open. This was where she was to live? She swallowed as she studied the fortress that perched on the cliff top like a menacing monolith. The castle was built of stone, solid and strong to withstand the winds that howled across the English Channel. Arrow slits glared like malignant eyes. Hardly the welcoming home she had envisioned.
"We're almost there," Mary announced. "I can see the gate and the courtyard beyond." She turned to Rosalind, her eyes huge brown rounds in her freckled face. "There are people waiting to meet us."
Uncertainties assailed Rosalind, threatening her fragile composure. Repeated swallowing did little to clear the lump in her throat. They said Hastings was mad. Perhaps she should have refused to marry him, but she had promised her uncle. The papers had been signed when her cousin, Miranda, and she were babes. One of them had to marry Hastings. Miranda had flatly refused so it was up to her to fulfill family obligations. At least she would have a home of her own. Her hands crept up to check that her lacy cap sat straight. That was what she wanted, wasn't it? A home of her own. A husband, and if she was fortunate, lots of chubby, laughing babies.
"Whoa, there!" the coachman bellowed. A horse snorted. Harness jangled, then came a piercing screech as the coachman hauled on the brake to halt the ponderous carriage.
The door flew open, and a footman dressed in green livery placed a step down for them to alight. Rosalind pushed aside her apprehension, swept up her skirts in one hand and placed her other into the footman's to descend. She released his hand instantly. Seconds later, Mary exited and stood beside her, blinking in the early afternoon sun.
The earl, much older than she recalled, bowed before her. Tall and thin with stooped shoulders, his clothing hung loosely while his powdered wig drew attention to his extreme pallor. "Lady Rosalind, it is good to see you again."
Rosalind sank into a deep curtsey, her eyes modestly lowered to hide her sudden nervousness. Her betrothed was here, standing right behind his father, but she was too frightened to look. Her cousin's frenzied words rang through her mind. Viscount Hastings was an ogre. A beast.
The earl interrupted her panic. "Child, let me look at you."
Rosalind straightened and met the frank gaze of the elderly earl. "Lady Rosalind, you have the look of your grandmother."
She smiled. "Thank you, my lord. I count that a compliment indeed."
Certainly, her grandmother had been the one person who understood how Rosalind felt, since she suffered from the same family affliction. Rosalind had found the past three years since her grandmother's death difficult and lonely.
The earl urged her forward. "Let me introduce you to my son and nephew. You will meet my sister, Lady Augusta, later."
A chill swept through Rosalind and her lashes lowered to screen her fears. The moment she had both looked forward to and dreaded - the first meeting with her betrothed.
"May I present my son, Viscount Hastings, and my nephew, Charles Soulden?"
Viscount Hastings thrust out a hand, and Rosalind placed her trembling one in his, wishing she had remembered to pull on her gloves. It was too late to worry now. She sank into another curtsey, too nervous to look up at his face. She registered his size first and then a number of erratic pictures flickered through her mind. She shoved them away, concentrating on the tangible man. He towered above her by a good ten inches, making her acutely aware of her own lack in that area.
The calloused hand that held hers tightened, and Rosalind looked up, startled. Her breath caught when she saw her betrothed clearly. Clad in a somber black jacket and breeches, and dark as she imagined the devil, he disdained the fashionable wigs and powder the other men wore. Instead, his hair tumbled in loose, disheveled curls about his head. His face was tanned, as if he spent many hours outside under the sun. But what really caught her attention was the angry scar that slashed his face, running from just below his left eye to his jaw. Puckered and red, it drew the eye.
Rosalind swallowed and looked away, but her gaze clashed with that of her betrothed before she could politely withdraw. His eyes were a mahogany brown, so dark they were almost black, and they openly mocked her reaction.
Confusion and embarrassment fought within her. She tensed under his sardonic gaze. She'd known the viscount had suffered an injury while on Grand Tour in Italy. The gossip of his miraculous return from the dead had spread rapidly through the ballrooms of London. Her stomach churned uneasily, and she averted her eyes to the weathered gray wall that surrounded the courtyard.
"Lady Rosalind, enchanted I'm sure." Hastings' low, gravelly voice sent a surge of alarm through her veins.
She inclined her head and valiantly tried to hide her agitation, but she suspected few fooled Hastings. "Thank you, my lord."
Sensations bombarded her mind, fragments of pictures, pieces of a larger puzzle. They were faint at the moment, but she knew from experience more details would come with time. A frustrated scream lodged in her throat. She tugged to free her hand, but he held fast. Why now? Why her betrothed? She'd thought - hoped - her betrothed would be one of the people for whom her accursed gift did not work. She had felt nothing when she touched the Earl of St. Clare.
The picture of a woman formed in her mind. Dressed in a flowing white gown with a tumble of dark curls about her shoulders, she walked arm in arm with a man. Rosalind gasped. Her left hand clutched her skirt, and she yanked her right from her betrothed's grasp. The man she saw in her mind was her betrothed, and the woman with him was heavy with child. She fanned her face vigorously, fighting for control. "It is hot today."
"Come inside, Rosalind," the earl said. "You must be tired after your long journey."
"Yes," she said, still aware of the viscount's mocking countenance. Her chin rose. "I am a little weary."
"Allow me." Hastings offered his arm. Rosalind caught the beaming smile on the earl's face as he and Charles Soulden turned toward a flight of stairs leading inside the castle.
"It's not too late to call off the wedding," the viscount murmured.
Rosalind went cold inside. If she backed out of this wedding, she would be a laughingstock. A failure. And she would have no home.
No chubby, laughing babies.
The gravel in the courtyard crunched underfoot, the only sound breaking the sudden hush between them.
She would end up on the shelf, a charity case depending on her uncle's largesse. A shudder swept through her body at the thought of being prey to her waspish aunt again. No. She didn't want that, which meant the wedding must go ahead. Despite the fact the man walking at her side was in love with another woman.
Lucien studied the young woman chosen for him by the earl. Pretty enough, in a bland English way, but he'd need to be dumb and blind not to realize she was frightened of him. She'd turned as pale as his white linen shirt when she'd noticed his scar. And she'd kept her gaze averted ever since, preferring to study the crumbling North tower, the departure of the carriage, the stable lads scurrying about. She watched anything instead of him. Even now, her whole body trembled with fear. If he made a loud noise, the woman would be off running, probably screaming all the way back from whence she'd come. Dammit, if he had to marry, he didn't want to marry a mouse. All he wanted was Francesca, and since she was dead, he couldn't have her. The familiar burning pain of loss seared through his chest. Francesca ...
"No." Her voice was barely audible above the pain that roared through his head. "I will marry you."
Surprise, nay, shock, made his brows shoot toward his hairline. With eyes narrowed, he turned to study her face. Dammit, if he hadn't missed the stubbornness in her small pointed chin. He cursed inwardly. At least he couldn't be accused of marrying a copy of his deceased wife. Blond curls peeked from beneath the lady's lace cap, while pale blue eyes shied from his gaze. She was petite, and very dissimilar from Francesca's dark, Junoesque beauty. He tried to imagine her in the marriage bed and failed dismally. Time to play his trump card. He continued with his lazy saunter, up a flight of stairs into the Great Hall with the English mouse at his side.
"They say I'm mad," he offered, observing her reaction.
"Y ... yes." She stumbled at the final step.
Ah, the girl had heard but remained set on her course. "I have no memory of my past. Does that not disturb you?" She said nothing, but Lucien found her transparent. The rumors bothered her. Then without warning, her generous mouth firmed, her chin lifted defiantly, and her left hand screwed up into a fist, quickly hidden in her blue skirts.
She wasn't going to change her mind.
An unwilling surge of admiration filled him. He shoved it away. He wanted nothing to get in the way of his plan. Someone had ordered the killing of his beloved Francesca. That someone must pay. Not only Francesca had died on that dark night, but also his unborn child. Vengeance would be his.
Lucien's heart hardened. If Lady Rosalind wanted marriage to Viscount Hastings, she would have it. After all, it mattered little. Nothing mattered except revenge.
Excerpted from The Second Seduction by Shelley Munro Copyright © 2005 by Shelley Munro. Excerpted by permission.
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