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Sabrina Fairleigh arrives at an exclusive country soiree with marriage in mind. How shocking -- and intriguing -- to discover her host is an infamous ladies' man known for his indecent (and, ah, inspiring) poetry! They call him The Libertine, and his poetry is just as scandalous -- and irresistible -- as he is. But after one duel too many forces Rhys Gillray, Earl of Rawden, from lively London to his country estate, he's in desperate need of a cure for boredom.
The proper but beautiful vicar's daughter seems like the perfect test of his sensual skills. With wit and wiliness, Rhys strips away Sabrina's defenses. But as he teaches her pleasure, the emotional stakes of their sensual duel go beyond anything Rhys has ever known. For deep in his past lies the missing clue to the crime that destroyed Sabrina's family. And all The Libertine's seductive secrets may not be enough to save their future and their hearts.
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The Secret to Seduction
By Julie Anne Long
ForeverCopyright © 2007 Julie Anne Long
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIN THE WINTER of 1820, Sabrina Fairleigh, daughter of the Vicar of Tinbury, discovered that her future happiness rested entirely in the hands of a libertine.
Or, rather, not just a libertine.
This was how the Earl of Rawden signed his poetry, poetry that scandalized, enthralled, and allegedly caused women of all ages and ranks to cast off their dignity and trail him like hounds on the scent of a hare: The Libertine. It was the sobriquet by which he was known throughout all of England, and his reputation was in fact such that word of it had managed to waft, like opium-and-incense-scented smoke, all the way to the tiny, tucked-away town of Tinbury, Derbyshire-where the air, incidentally, had never been scented by anything more controversial than roast lamb, or maybe once or twice a cigar, and where life was as sedate, predictable, and pleasing as a minuet. The gentle green hills surrounding the vicarage, not to mention the Vicar of Tinbury himself, seemed to prevent local passions from becoming unduly inflamed. No one in Tinbury seemed in danger of writing sensual poetry.
But neither the gentle hills nor the vicar had been able to prevent the quietly determined Sabrina Fairleigh from forming a-well, "attachment" was the word she carefully used in her own mind, though no such word had been spoken aloud byanyone-to her father's handsome curate of less than a year, Mr. Geoffrey Gillray. It was the fault of the shock of hair that dropped down over Geoffrey's brow: sometimes when her father allowed Geoffrey to give the sermon, he gave his head an absent toss, sending the hair flying rakishly. Sabrina had wanted to brush it away from his eyes for him. She'd never before had such thoughts about a man, and they made her blush.
And one day Geoffrey had looked up to see her watching him. She'd blushed again, of course, for she was certain he could read her thoughts in her eyes.
Later, he had invited her for a walk in the spring air. And in fits and starts, amid the smell of warm grass and blooming trees, they'd begun to know each other.
And then, the following day, he'd invited her for another walk.
Little by little, the walks had become a habit between them. Sabrina told him about the miniature of her mother, and her memories of long ago. And after she'd confided to Geoffrey her special dream of being a missionary in a faraway land, such as India or Africa, she'd believed afresh in miracles.
For the handsome curate, professing astonishment, confessed he shared this very same dream.
But it was perhaps evidence of the Creator's sense of humor that Geoffrey, the quiet curate, and The Libertine, the Earl of Rawden, were cousins. Geoffrey had confided to Sabrina his hope that his wealthy cousin would help to finance this grand missionary dream, and he would be attending his cousin's house party at La Montagne, the grandest home in all the Midlands, this week, to make his petition.
She didn't doubt that Geoffrey-as she now called him, rather boldly she thought, and never in front of her father-with his lean, elegant face and long, slender body and penetrating, dark eyes, could be related to an earl. He, in fact, could have been an earl, she decided, though she hadn't the faintest idea what one looked like, as Tinbury featured only a squire or two, and one was Lady Mary Capstraw's husband, and the other Mary's father.
And now, due to the machinations of her friend Lady Mary Capstraw, who, like all married women, conspired to get every unmarried woman into the state of matrimony, Sabrina sat in a carriage hurtling toward La Montagne.
Geoffrey was going to be very surprised to see her.
It had been Mary's idea. Her husband, Lord Paul Capstraw, had been visiting his uncle in Appleton, a town in the Midlands. La Montagne was situated almost precisely between Tinbury and Paul's uncle. Mary had written to Paul, Paul had written to the Earl of Rawden, and the earl had invited the couple to reunite at La Montagne, from which they would go on to visit more relatives. For Mary was a social creature, seldom at home in Tinbury for more than a fortnight, and she dragged her cheerful husband about on seemingly endless rounds of visits to friends and relatives like the tail on a kite.
Legend had it that Mary's husband had scarcely said a word since he'd been married. Certainly he'd hardly said more than two words to Sabrina ever; he communicated primarily in bows and smiles. Sabrina half suspected that he'd married Mary in order to relieve himself of the need to talk. Mary-golden-haired, blue-eyed Mary, her face round as a moon and always animated-seemed to only stop talking in order to sleep.
But Mary was sleeping now on the carriage seat across from Sabrina, mouth slightly parted, snoring softly.
Mary, Sabrina decided, was cleverer than she had given her credit for, at least when it came to the business of acquiring husbands: for Mary had invited Sabrina along to La Montagne as a companion, as what married woman travels alone? And though Sabrina was accustomed to being the clever one, she felt rather at sea in the business of romance, and was grateful to Mary for a bit of a steer. She'd never been to a house party, but many an engagement had been secured at them, or so Mary assured her.
It was perhaps the most daring thing Sabrina had ever done, this dash to La Montagne, as her father had simply been told she was paying a visit to Mary. It wasn't at all strictly a lie, of course. And surely her father would forgive her-that is, if he ever found out-should she secure an engagement to Geoffrey. Sabrina was all but positive that the young curate would offer for her the moment he knew precisely what it was he had to offer her.
But the idea of the Earl of Rawden-The Libertine, for heaven's sake-with his duels and his mistress and his poetry that caused such a tumult in the hearts of women ... well, it all sounded so very impractical. How dreadfully uncomfortable and inconvenient it must be to be slave to such passions, such untidy emotions. She wondered whether the wear of his life would show on his face, or on his body; surely debauchery would take its toll.
She decided, quite peacefully, that rather than being intimidated or scandalized, she would feel compassion for the earl.
Sabrina peered out the window of the carriage. Mrs. Dewberry, a poor elderly woman confined to her home in Tinbury whom Sabrina visited at least once every week, would have called the early snowfall an omen, and Sabrina was inclined to believe her. Then again, everything-the shapes of clouds, the spots on sows, the calls of birds-had begun to feel like an omen to her now that she was very likely on the brink of marriage and the rest of her life.
But only little patches of snow remained, scattered across the green like abandoned lacy handkerchiefs. The wan early sunlight was gaining in strength, and the bare birch trees crowding the sides of the road shone nearly metallic in it, making Sabrina blink as they flew past in the carriage. She wondered, idly, why trees didn't become woolly in winter, like cats and cattle, but instead dropped all of their leaves and went bare.
She smiled to herself and tucked her chin into her muffler. It was the sort of thought she had grown accustomed to keeping to herself, and it was because of the furrow that ran the width of Vicar Fairleigh's forehead. It had been dug there, no doubt, by decades of pious thoughts and an endless stream of little concerns-his parishioners, his next sermon, how he was going to feed his children-and every time Sabrina said fanciful things, or played a hymn on the pianoforte with an excess of feeling, his eyebrows dove, that furrow became a veritable trench, and his gaze became decidedly wary, as though it were only a matter of time before she sprouted wings like a fairy and flew out the window.
So she'd learned to lock such thoughts away in her mind, much the way she'd locked away her other treasures: the small rock she'd found with the imprint of a leaf, the needle she'd first used when she'd learned to sew, and of course the miniature of her mother, a face so like her own.
She knew that Vicar Fairleigh worried just a little bit more about her, had always been just a little more watchful of her than he was of his other children, two boys much older than she, as though he was prepared for her to do ... something. She knew not what. Something disquieting, no doubt. Possibly because by the age of thirteen she'd gone and done the unthinkable and become what could only be described as ... Well, "pretty" was the word everyone in Tinbury used, but they used it gingerly, for it seemed unlikely-unnecessary, really-for a vicar's daughter to be pretty. She was fine-boned and creamy-skinned, with rich dark hair that fell in loose spirals to nearly her waist when she brushed it out at night. And then there were her eyes: large with a hint of a tilt to them, green as spring. In truth, the word "pretty" was very nearly a lie. Where Sabrina Fairleigh was concerned, the word "beautiful" begged consideration.
Certainly, as Sabrina grew older, it became clear that many of the male members of the congregation had ceased pretending to listen to the sermons and were instead admiring the vicar's daughter, and all of this was rather inconvenient for the vicar.
And of course no one in Tinbury was surprised when it became clear the handsome curate had eyes only for Sabrina. Sabrina rather suspected her poor father wouldn't mind at all seeing her safely married off, happily pursuing work for the poor on some other continent.
She peered out the coach window once more as the horses and carriage decisively took a curve in the drive. Here, suddenly, the trees grew more snugly together, evenly spaced and rigorously groomed and each equally as tall as the next, as though here the owner of the property had decided to show nature precisely who was in charge.
Her heartbeat accelerated. She knew that as the end of their journey approached, very likely, so did the beginning of the rest of her life.
She nudged her friend with the toe of her boot.
Mary opened an eye. "Mmm?"
"Mrs. Dewberry said the squirrels were gathering more nuts this year, and the bark was thicker on the north side of the trees."
Mary opened the other eye and stared at Sabrina blankly.
"Winter," Sabrina explained impatiently. "She said it would be both early and hard this year because of the squirrels and the bark."
Mary stretched. "Oh, the snow has scarcely stuck to the ground," she scoffed cheerfully. "Winter might be early, perhaps, but I daresay this little dusting means nothing at all."
Sabrina said nothing.
Mary sighed. "I know what you're thinking, but it's not an omen, Sabrina. All will go according to our plan. You and Geoffrey are meant for each other. You'll see."
And as she was awake, like a bird, Mary began to chatter.
But moments later, when La Montagne came into view through the carriage windows, even Mary went quiet.
The two of them gaped.
It was less a house than a ... than a ... range. It dominated the landscape the way she imagined the Alps must. An edifice of tawny stone, easily four times as long as it was tall, row upon row of windows staring down like indifferent, aristocratic eyes. As they drew closer, Sabrina could see that the vast cobblestoned courtyard featured a large marble fountain: the Three Graces seemed to compete with one another to hold up a single urn, from which water would no doubt shoot up during warmer months. One of the Graces was losing a glossy marble breast from her toga. Sabrina quickly averted her eyes from it.
It occurred to her that this was both a magnificent and stunningly ... arrogant house. Who on earth would feel entitled to such a dwelling, or could live here without feeling dwarfed by it?
In silence, Sabrina and Mary allowed themselves to be helped from the carriage by a swarm of footmen, and watched as their trunks were deftly ferried up rows of marble steps into the house.
It was then that Sabrina glanced to the left of the entrance and saw, on the snow-dusted green surrounding the courtyard, a man and woman standing close together. Something about their postures, the tension and intimacy of them, riveted Sabrina's gaze.
The man was very tall, and his greatcoat hung in graceful folds from his shoulders to his ankles-the way it fit him told her this was her first glimpse of truly fine clothing. His hair was dark, straight, gleaming with nearly a blue sheen; his head was lowered as though he was listening intently to whatever the woman was saying. The woman wore a scarlet pelisse, the furred collar of it cradling her delicate chin, and her hair was fair, bright as a coin in the sun. Her shoulders sloped elegantly; her long hands were bare and startlingly white against her pelisse. Sabrina could just make out the woman's voice, low, lilting.
Suddenly the man's head jerked back. He went rigid, stared at the woman. Sabrina's breath suspended. She'd seen a fox look at a vole just like that. Right before it seized it in its jaws.
The man abruptly pivoted and strode away from the woman in long angry strides.
The woman's laughter followed him, a thin silvery sound. Merry as sleigh bells.
She wondered what on earth the woman had said to cause such a pronounced reaction from such a very large man. Such passions. How uncomfortable it must be to be at the mercy of them.
And with that thought, somehow she knew: this man was the earl.
Sabrina tried to force her interest and trepidation back into the clothes of compassion, but they wriggled back out again. She couldn't help but take a tiny involuntary step back toward the carriage, for the man's anger came with him as he approached the fountain.
And then he seemed to truly notice them, and immediately his posture changed as though he'd thrown off a cloak. All was welcome, ease, grace, smiles.
And when he finally stood over them, and Sabrina looked up into his face, her lungs ceased to draw in air.
This was the only sort of man who could possibly suit this house.
Much more imposing from a mere few feet away, he was lean but broad-shouldered, more than a head taller than Sabrina, and she wasn't a tiny person. There was a hint of Geoffrey in the deep-set eyes, but his jaw was angular, his cheekbones cut decisively higher, the planes and hollows of his face starkly, in fact rather uncompromisingly, defined. And his eyes were startling: blue, pale, crystalline. Brilliant with light. His brows, severe dark slashes over them.
Absurdly, she thought: Debauchery suits him.
Somehow she'd expected a softer man, with Byronic curls and haunted eyes and perhaps an air of dissipation.
"Welcome to my home. I am Lord Rawden."
And his voice: low and elegant, resonant as a cello. Not raw from too many cigars or too much drink.
Mary and Sabrina curtsied as he bowed low.
But beneath the grace, Sabrina could sense the remnants of his anger, and something else, too. Her eyes darted toward where the woman had been standing; she saw, in the distance, the scarlet pelisse retreating deeper into the front garden.
And she knew what she'd sensed. Whatever the woman had said to him had been intended to cut, and Sabrina suspected it had.
And as Sabrina watched him stride over to issue instructions to the housekeeper who had come to stand on the stairs leading up to the house, compassion was the least of a crowd of unfamiliar things, many of them uncomfortable, this man had prodded up in her in an instant.
She sensed it was all second nature, the grace and the manners, no more effort for him than breathing; she also sensed that he had taken her in with a glance of those fiercely intelligent eyes, summed her up, silently dismissed her, and had moved on to other far more interesting things in his mind.
She decided then and there that the Earl of Rawden would most definitely take note of her before this house party was over.
Excerpted from The Secret to Seduction by Julie Anne Long Copyright © 2007 by Julie Anne Long. Excerpted by permission.
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