Three Little Secrets
  • Three Little Secrets
  • Three Little Secrets

Three Little Secrets

4.1 23
by Liz Carlyle
     
 

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National bestselling author Liz Carlyle concludes her scandalous new trilogy with a sensuous novel of two star-crossed souls who share a secret or two . . . or three.

Once upon a time, they eloped. But then dashing Scotsman Merrick MacLachlan accepted payment from Lady Madeleine's father to have the marriage annulled. Or did he?

Two times,

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Overview

National bestselling author Liz Carlyle concludes her scandalous new trilogy with a sensuous novel of two star-crossed souls who share a secret or two . . . or three.

Once upon a time, they eloped. But then dashing Scotsman Merrick MacLachlan accepted payment from Lady Madeleine's father to have the marriage annulled. Or did he?

Two times, Maddie has wed. Once for love, once for comfort. Yet once more she is alone with only her beloved son and his haunting visions for company. Until fate thrusts her back into the arms of her first love.

Three little secrets dance between them. One is that he desires her as much as ever; another is that she's never forgotten his touch. But the scars of their youthful passion run deep, and the third secret will either mark their undoing . . . or spark the sizzling reunion they dare not dream of.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While it's standard practice for books in a romance trilogy to share unifying elements-such as setting, characters and themes-few recycle plot devices as blatantly as the tales in Carlyle's historical Little trilogy (One Little Sin; Two Little Lies). In this third installment of the Regency saga, Carlyle spins a story of long-separated lovers who reunite, but only after much argument, miscommunication and the revelation of a baby's less-than-surprising true parentage. The plot will ring familiar to Carlyle's fans, primarily because it's a carbon copy of Two Little Lies. As in Lies, the hero and heroine-in this case hardened businessman Merrick MacLachlan and his former beau, Lady Madeleine Bessett-meet by chance in London and then spend the bulk of the book casting each other longing looks, declaring they want nothing to do with one another and indulging in angst-ridden personal flashbacks; it all grows tedious fast. It's a testament to Carlyle's skill that her characters engage despite the familiar setup, but in the end, they aren't dynamic enough to satisfy the story line or the reader. This book may contain Carlyle's signature sensuality, but it lacks the complexity of plot and character that made her earlier romances shine. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743496124
Publisher:
Pocket Star
Publication date:
04/28/2006
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Money's like the muck midden; it does nae good 'til it be spread.

The Scots say that a tale never loses in the telling, and the tale of Merrick MacLachlan had been told a thousand times. In the drawing rooms and club rooms and back rooms of London, MacLachlan had been growing richer and darker and more malevolent by the season, until, in the summer of his life, the man was thought a veritable Shylock, ever searching for his pound of flesh.

Those who did business with the Black MacLachlan did so honestly, and with a measure of trepidation. Some became rich in return, for the color of money often rubs off. Others fared less well, and their tales were told, more often than not, in the insolvent debtors' court. Miss Kitty Coates had scarcely fared at all and couldn't even spell insolvent. The sort of business she did with MacLachlan meant that she was always giving her bawd an ample cut.

At the moment, however, Kitty had better things to think about than her ill luck at arithmetic and spelling, for the afternoon sun was slanting low through the windows of MacLachlan's makeshift bedchamber, casting a keen blade of light across the gentleman's bare shoulders. And across the scars, too — hideous white welts that crisscrossed the hard flesh of his biceps and even down his back. Kitty had long since grown accustomed to them. She spread her fingers wide in the soft, dark hair which dusted his chest, and held on tight as she rode him.

Just then, a clock in the outer office struck five. With three or four hard thrusts upward, MacLachlan finished his business, then rolled Kitty onto her back and dragged a well-muscled arm over his eyes. The message was clear.

"We don't have to quit just yet, Mr. MacLachlan, do we?" Kitty rolled back up again and traced one finger lightly down the scar which curled like a scimitar's blade up his cheek. "Why, I could stay on a little longer — say, two quid for the whole night?" The warm finger drew back up again. "Aye, we'd have us a fine old time, you and me."

MacLachlan threw back the sheets, pushed her away, and rolled out of the narrow bed. "Put your clothes on, Kitty." His voice was emotionless. "Leave by the back stairs today. The office staff is still at work."

Her expression tightened, but she said nothing. MacLachlan stood, gritting his teeth against the pain in his lower leg. He did not move until he was confident he could do so without limping, then he went into the dressing room and meticulously washed himself.

By the time he returned to his pile of carefully folded clothing, Kitty was wriggling back into her rumpled red dress, her eyebrows snapped tautly together, her expression dark. " 'Ow long, Mr. MacLachlan, 'ave I been coming round 'ere?"

MacLachlan suppressed a sigh of exasperation. "I have no notion, Kitty."

"Well, I knows exactly 'ow long," she said peevishly. "Four months and a fortnight, to the very day."

"I did not take you for the sentimental type." MacLachlan was busy pulling on his drawers.

"Every Monday and Thursday since the first o' February," Kitty went on. "And in all that time, you've scarce said a dozen words ter me."

"I did not realize that you came all the way from Soho for the erudite conversation," he answered, unfolding his trousers. "I thought you were here for the money."

"Aye, go on, then!" She snatched up her stockings from the pile on his floor. "Use your fine, big words ter poke fun and push me round. Lie down, Kitty! Bend over, Kitty! Get out, Kitty! I have an appointment, Kitty! Ooh, you are a hard, hateful man, MacLachlan!"

"I collect that I have fallen in your esteem," he remarked. "Tell Mrs. Farnham to send someone else on Thursday, if you prefer." Someone who doesn't talk so damned much, he silently added, stabbing in his shirttails.

"Well, I can ask, but I'm the only redhead Farnie's got," warned Kitty, tugging the first stocking up her leg with short, sharp jerks. "And I get hired a lot on account o' this hair, let me tell you."

"Any color will do for me," he answered, watching her arse as she bent to put on her last stocking. "I really could not care less."

Something inside Kitty seemed to snap. She jerked upright, spun around, and hurled the stocking in his face. "Well, why don't you just go fuck a knothole in a rotten fence, you ungrateful, blackhearted Scot!"

For a moment, he glowered at her. "Aye, 'tis an option — and a cheaper one, at that." He was beginning to consider it, too. After all, he was a businessman. And fences did not talk, wheedle, or whine.

Ruthlessly, Kitty shoved her bare foot into one of her shoes. "Well, I've had enough o' your grunting and heaving and rolling off me wiv ne'er so much afterward as a fare-thee-well! I might be a Haymarket whore, MacLachlan, but I'm damned if I'll — "

The ten-pound note he shoved into her clenched fist silenced her. For a long moment, she stared at it, blinking back tears.

Somehow, MacLachlan dredged up the kindness to give her hand a little squeeze. "You've held up admirably, Kitty," he murmured. "And I am not an ungrateful man. But I do not care to strike up a friendship. Have Mrs. Farnham send someone else on Thursday. We need a change, you and I."

With a disdainful sniff, Kitty tucked the banknote into her ample cleavage — clearly Mrs. Farnham wouldn't be getting a cut of that. She let her gaze run down him, all the way to his crotch, then she heaved a theatrical sigh. " 'Fraid it ain't my heart that'll be aching, MacLachlan," she remarked. "Much as I hate to credit you. But however gifted you might be, you just ain't worth it."

MacLachlan was rewrapping his stock around his throat. "Aye, doubtless you are right."

Kitty made a harrumphing noise. "Fine, then. I'll send over Bess Bromley on Thursday, and let 'er put up wiv you for a spell. Monstrous mean, that cat-eyed bitch. You two'll get on like a house afire." And on that parting remark, Kitty swished through the makeshift bedchamber and jerked open the door to his private office, where she promptly melted into the gloom.

For a long moment, MacLachlan simply stood there, staring into the shadows of his office. He knew that a better man would feel regret, perhaps even a measure of guilt. But he did not. Oh, Kitty had served him well enough, he reminded himself as he finished dressing. She'd been clean and polite and punctual. Certainly her broad, round arse would be forever fixed in his memory.

But that was about all he would likely remember. Indeed, it had been the first of April before he'd troubled himself to learn her name. Before that, he'd simply told the girl to strip and lie down on the bed. On especially busy days, he had not even bothered to undress, he recalled as he returned to his desk. He would simply drop the front of his trousers, bend the girl over the sofa in his office, and get on with the business of satisfying an otherwise annoying itch.

No, he did not care. Not then, and not now. Because there was one thing MacLachlan craved more than the sight of a fine, wide arse — and that was raw, unadulterated power. And Kitty's complaints, however heartfelt, would never alter the two most immutable laws of capitalism. Time was money. And money was power. He had very little of the first nowadays, and he would never have enough of the last.

MacLachlan rolled out the next set of elevation drawings and impatiently yanked the bell for his clerk. It was time to fetch his solicitors down from Threadneedle Street. There was work which wanted doing. Within the week, MacLachlan meant to break ground for three new properties, sell another six, bankrupt an uncooperative brick merchant, and plow down a neighboring village — all in preparation for the next terrace of elegant, faux-Georgian houses which were destined to help him part the profligate English from yet another cartload of their pence and their pounds. And that he would truly enjoy.

The house in Mortimer Street did not look precisely like that of a wealthy and powerful peer. It was not in Mayfair, but merely near it. It was not a wide, double-fronted mansion, but just a single town house with two windows and a door down, and four unremarkable floors above. From its simple brick facade, one might suppose the place housed a banker or a barrister or some moderately prosperous coal merchant.

It did not. It housed instead the powerful Earl of Treyhern, a solid, sober-minded citizen if ever there was one. A simple man who, it was said, brooked no foolishness, and hated deceit above all things. Worse still, the Countess of Bessett, who stood trembling on his doorstep, had not even come to see the earl. She had come instead to see his governess — or more precisely, to steal his governess, were it to prove even remotely possible.

Money was no object. Her nerves were another thing altogether. But the countess was desperate, so she patted the little bulge in her reticule, swallowed hard, and went up the steps to ring the bell. She prayed the woman still worked here. Only when the door had flown open did it occur to her that perhaps it was not perfectly proper to ask for a servant at the front door.

Alas, too late. A tall, wide-shouldered footman was staring her straight in the face. Lady Bessett handed him her card with an unsteady hand. "The Countess of Bessett to see Mademoiselle de Severs, if she is available?"

The footman's eyebrows lifted a little oddly, but he escorted the countess up the stairs and bade her be seated in a small, sunny parlor.

The room was fitted with fine French antiques, buttery jacquard wall covering, and yellow shantung draperies which brushed the lush Aubusson carpet. Despite her state of anxiety, Lady Bessett found the room pleasant and made a mental note of the colors. Tomorrow, if she survived this meeting, she was to buy a house. Her very first house — not her husband's house or her father's house or her stepson's house. Hers. And then she, too, would have a yellow parlor. It was to be her choice, was it not? She would tell the builder so tomorrow.

A few moments later, a tall, dark-haired woman came into the room. She looked decidedly French, but she was dressed perhaps a little more elegantly than one might expect of a governess. Her bearing was not especially servile, and her expression was one of good-humored curiosity. Before she could think better of it, Lady Bessett leapt from the sofa and hastened across the room.

"You are Mademoiselle de Severs?" she whispered, seizing the woman's hand.

The woman's mouth twitched. "Well, yes, but — "

"I wish to employ you," Lady Bessett interjected. "At once. You must but name your price."

Mademoiselle de Severs drew back. "Oh, I am afraid you mistake — "

"No, I am desperate." Lady Bessett tightened her grip on the woman's hand. "I have a letter of introduction. From the Gräfin von Hodenberg in Passau. She has told me everything. About your work. Your training in Vienna. My son . . . I fear he is quite ill. I must hire you, Mademoiselle de Severs. I must. I cannot think where else to turn."

The woman gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "I am so sorry," she said in her faint French accent. "The gräfin is misinformed. Indeed, I have not spoken to her in a decade or better."

"She said as much," agreed Lady Bessett.

"How, pray, do you know her?"

Lady Bessett dropped her gaze to the floor. "I lived much of my marriage abroad," she explained. "Our husbands shared an interest in ancient history. We met first in Athens, I think."

"How kind of her to remember me."

Lady Bessett smiled faintly. "She knew only that you had gone to London to work for a family called Rutledge, who had a poor little girl who was dreadfully ill. It was quite difficult to track the family down. And London — well, it is such a large place, is it not? I have visited here but once in the whole of my life."

Miss de Severs motioned toward a pair of armchairs by the hearth, which was unlit on such a late-spring afternoon. "Please, Lady Bessett, do sit down," she invited. "I shall endeavor to explain my situation here."

Hope wilted in Lady Bessett's heart. "You . . . you cannot help us?"

"I cannot yet say," the governess replied. "Certainly I shall try. Now, the child — what is his age, please, and the nature of his illness?"

Lady Bessett choked back a sob. "Geoffrey is twelve," she answered. "And he — he has — well, he imagines things, mademoiselle. Odd, frightening things. And he blurts out things which make no sense, and he cannot explain why. Sometimes he suffers from melancholia. He is a deeply troubled child."

Miss de Severs was nodding slowly. "These imaginings take the form of what? Dreams? Hallucinations? Does the child hear voices?"

"Dreams, I think," she whispered. "But dreams whilst he is awake, if that makes any sense? I — I am not perfectly sure, you see. Geoffrey will no longer discuss them with me. Indeed, he has become quite secretive."

"Does he still suffer them?" asked the governess. "Children often outgrow such things, you know."

Lady Bessett shook her head. "They are getting worse," she insisted. "I can tell that he is worried. I have consulted both a physician and a phrenologist in Harley Street. They say — oh, God! — they say he might have a mental disorder. That eventually, he might lose touch with reality altogether, and need to be restrained. Or — or confined."

"Oh, what balderdash!" said the governess, rolling her eyes. "Why, I should like to restrain and confine some of the physicians in Harley Street — and never mind what I would do to the phrenologists."

"You — you do not believe them?"

"Oh, almost never!" said the woman breezily. "And in this case, certainly not. A child of twelve is not sufficiently developed, mentally or physically, for such dire pronouncements. And if he has odd bumps on his head, it is likely from a game of conkers gone awry. Perhaps your son is merely sensitive and artistic?"

Lady Bessett shook her head. "It is not that," she said certainly. "Though he is quite a fine artist. He has a great head for mathematics, too, and all things scientific. That is why these — these spells seem so out of character."

"He is not a fanciful child, then?"

"By no means."

"He otherwise functions well in the world? He learns? He comprehends?"

"Geoff's tutor says he is brilliant."

"Has there been any childhood trauma?"

For an instant, Lady Bessett hesitated. "No, not . . . not trauma."

The governess lifted her eyebrows again, and opened her mouth as if to speak. But just then, a lovely girl with blond hair came twirling through the doorway in what could only be described as a fashionable dinner gown.

"Mamma, it is finished!" she cried, craning her head over her shoulder to look at her heels. "What do you think? Is the hem right? Does it make my derriere look too — "

"My dear, we have a guest," chided the governess — who was, it now appeared, not the governess after all. "This is Lady Bessett. Lady Bessett, my stepdaughter, Lady Ariane Rutledge."

The girl was already flushing deeply. "Oh! I do beg your pardon, ma'am!" She curtsied, and excused herself at once.

"I say!" murmured Lady Bessett, feeling her cheeks grow warm. "Who was — I mean — was that . . . ?"

"Lord Treyhern's poor little girl who was so dreadfully ill," said her hostess. "Yes, that is what I have been trying to tell you, Lady Bessett. We were married, he and I. And Ariane, as you see, is quite a normal young lady now. We have three other children as well, so my work nowadays consists of little more than giving the odd bit of advice to a friend or relation."

"Oh." Lady Bessett's shoulders fell. "Oh, dear. You are Lady Treyhern now! And I — well, I do not know what I shall do."

Her hostess leaned across the distance, and set her hand on Lady Bessett's. "My dear, you are very young," she said. "Younger, I think, even than I?"

"I am thirty," she whispered. "And I feel as though I am twice that." Then, to her undying embarrassment, a tear rolled down Lady Bessett's cheek.

Lady Treyhern handed her a freshly starched handkerchief. "Thirty is still rather young," she went on. "You must trust me when I say that children do outgrow such things."

"Do you think so?" Lady Bessett sniffled. "I just wish I could be sure. Geoffrey is my life. We have only one another now."

"I see," said Lady Treyhern. "And how long are you in London, my dear?"

Lady Bessett lifted her sorrowful gaze. "Forever," she replied. "I am the dowager countess and my stepson is newly wed. Tomorrow I am contracting to purchase a house nearby."

"Are you?" Lady Treyhern smiled. "How very exciting."

Lady Bessett shrugged. "Our village doctor thought it best for Geoff that we be close to London. He said he had no notion what to do for the boy."

Lady Treyhern patted her hand comfortingly. "You must take your time and settle in, my dear," she advised. "And when you have done so, you must bring young Geoff to tea. We will begin to get acquainted."

"You . . . you will help us, then?"

"I shall try," said Lady Treyhern. "His symptoms are indeed mysterious — but I am not at all convinced it is a disorder."

"Are you not? Thank God."

"Even if it were, my dear, there are a few physicians in London who have been attending to the events unfolding in Vienna and Paris," said her hostess. "Forays are being made into the field of mental diseases — psychology, they call it. They are not all uninformed nitwits, Lady Bessett."

"Mental diseases!" Lady Bessett shuddered. "I cannot bear even to think of it!"

"I rather doubt you shall have to," said Lady Treyhern. "Now I shall ring for coffee, and you must tell me all about this new house of yours. Where is it, pray?"

"Near Chelsea," said Lady Bessett quietly. "In a village called Walham Green. I have taken a cottage there until the house is complete, but that will be some weeks yet."

"Well, then, you are but a short drive from town," said Lady Treyhern as she rose and rang the bell. "I confess, I do not know a great many people in London myself. Nonetheless, you must allow me to help you with introductions."

Again, Lady Bessett felt her face heat. "I fear I have been very little in society," she admitted. "I know almost no one."

"Well, my dear, now you know me," said her hostess. "So, what of this new house? I daresay it has all the modern conveniences. And of course you will be buying a great many new furnishings, I am sure. How very exciting that will be!"

Copyright ©2006 by Susan Woodhouse

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