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Authors: Beverley Kendall

Tags: #Historical Romance

All's Fair in Love and Seduction (14 page)

BOOK: All's Fair in Love and Seduction
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“Oh God, I thought you—” Charlotte broke off abruptly when her sister turned a tear-stained face to her, her joy a living breathing entity. How could she now admit she’d returned because she’d thought her near death’s door? She could not.

“Thought I was what?” Katie asked in a voice choked with tears.

“I thought perhaps I wouldn’t find you home,” Charlotte quickly improvised. “Oh Katie, how I missed you too, so very much.”

Katie’s breaths came in pants and half sobs, her arms tightening around Charlotte’s waist until she could scarce draw a breath. How long they stood holding each other, she didn’t know. But for those finite moments, time seemed to stand still.

After she caught her breath, and her sister was no longer gasping as if she’d been running too hard and too long, Charlotte loosened her hold and drew back to take in a face so dearly familiar and identical to her own. With them, their differences lay beneath the surface.

Sky blue eyes fringed with thick lashes gazed back at her. Eyes glassy with tears. In all the jostling and excitement, ringlets of burnished gold curls had come dislodged from what had to be a small army of pins securing her sister’s chignon. How well Charlotte knew what it took to keep the thick mane properly tamed and presentable.

Katie reached out to cradle Charlotte’s cheek in her palm, her touch almost reverent. “Where—when–why didn’t you say anything about coming home in your last letter?”

“The decision was very last minute,” Charlotte whispered in a voice equally thick with emotion as her twin’s.

After brushing the crest of Charlotte’s cheek with her thumb, Katie dropped her hand to her side. “I hope you realize that James and Missy will be beside themselves when I send word of your return,” she chided gently. “They’re to stay in London a week. Of course, I’ll have to send word express that you’ve returned. I expect they’ll be home tomorrow or soon after.”

“I know and I’m disappointed too, but in a way I’m happy it’s just the two of us—at least for today.”

Katie smiled, her face flushed pink with pleasure. After several seconds of contented silence, she took a step back and began a critical appraisal of Charlotte’s figure, commencing at the ruffled collar of her blue and yellow wool-traveling suit. Her expression sobered the further her gaze continued downward. “You’re too thin. Why, I must outweigh you by a good half a stone.”

“Perhaps a little. I’ve recently dropped some weight.” The stress of thinking one’s sister hovered on the brink of death tended to kill one’s appetite. Of course, that was something she couldn’t now admit to her twin.

“We’ll have to fatten you up a bit. It’s obvious you haven’t been taking proper care of yourself,” Katie stated crisply, eyeing the dress at her waist, which several weeks ago had cinched it nicely instead of bunching with excess fabric as it did now.

“You haven’t changed a bit, still just as bossy as ever,” Charlotte teased, attempting to lighten the mood. Her sister would have time to reproach about her inadequate diet later. Desperate to hold off the questions sure to come, she turned to her surroundings. Her gaze swept the three-storey vestibule and down the wide corridor of the picture gallery ahead. “Though the same can’t be said of this place. I would hardly recognize it anymore.”

Katie came immediately to her side and hooked her arm through hers as if she couldn’t bear any physical distance between them. Following the direction of Charlotte’s gaze, she said, “Yes, Missy redecorated three summers ago. I’m proud to say I did have a small hand in the effort. I selected the chandelier.” Her sister angled them toward the front and pointed at the elaborate crystal and glass lighting fixture soaring high above the entryway. “A fine choice if I daresay.”

Charlotte nodded her agreement. Her sister had always had exquisite taste.

“Missy insisted on a décor more suited to children. The rugs were purchased when the floors met with one too many of her treasured Wedgwood vases. Marble tends to be terribly unforgiving that way.” She emitted an airy chuckle. “But the alterations have added a warmth that was lacking before. Don’t you think it looks and feels more like a home and less like a museum than when the dowager lived here?”

Charlotte nodded mutely as a frisson of fear coursed the length of her spine at the mention of the dowager. She didn’t want to think about her.

Slowly, she lowered her gaze to admire the Persian rug beneath her booted feet, and continued on to take in silk-papered walls done in dark green. Two walnut tables inlaid with a lighter wood, and several chairs with cushioned seats in which a weary bottom might actually find comfort also graced the hall.

“Yes, it certainly does.”

Months after the death of their father, James’s mother, the dowager Countess of Windmere, moved to Devon and James took possession of the manor. Charlotte had found the place as cold and sterile as its previous occupant. Although they had never been formally introduced, the dowager had made no secret of her loathing for Charlotte and Katie. But given they were the illegitimate issue of the woman’s husband and born only months after her youngest son, her feelings were understandable and expected. However, the dowager had carried her hatred too far. The letter and the threat had revealed her truly vindictive side.

“While I was sad for James and Christopher when she passed away, I must admit to a sense of relief knowing our paths would never cross again.”

Charlotte’s next breath emerged a serrated gasp. Her head snapped to the side and she stared at Katie, mouth agape. “She is dead?” she asked in a hushed whisper.

Her sister sent her a puzzled frown, her winged brows collecting over a slender nose. “Surely you can’t be distressed?” Katie asked, clearly mistaking her shock for sadness. “You know how I normally refrain from the use of clichés, but truly that woman has been the bane of my existence. If you had remained, you would have been similarly affected. I’m certain if not for that wretched woman, I would have married ages ago. But no, she refused to allow anyone to forget I was James’s illegitimate sister. Not at all good enough for their precious sons.”

Charlotte didn’t respond immediately, still trying to digest the enormity of what she’d just learned. Dare she hope with the dowager gone, so too was the threat she had posed to everyone Charlotte loved?

“When—when did she die?” If she died recently, there was still time for the truth to come out if she’d confided in anyone.

“Early last year. I would have told you had I an address to send my correspondence to,” Katie replied a note of censure in her voice.

For almost an entire year. The length of time gave Charlotte great hope. James and Missy were in London with the children, and presumably still welcome members of Society. Certainly if the dowager had shared the information, something would have surfaced by now. It appeared she had taken it with her to her grave. She shot Katie a glance. Their secret was safe.

“I imagine it must have been a very difficult time for James and Christopher.” This Charlotte could say with all honesty.

Her sister gave her a sidelong look. “I feared you were going to start spouting empty platitudes about how sorry you are that she’s gone. She was a simply horrible woman, and I haven’t missed her one little bit.”

No, Charlotte couldn’t have lied to her sister about that. She wasn’t that good an actress. “As I said before, you haven’t changed at all,” she said dryly. Her sister didn’t believe in being agreeable for propriety’s sake.

Katie flashed an infectious grin. “And why should I change? As I recall it was the only way anyone could tell us apart. Should I become kind and agreeable, I could very well be mistaken for you.”

“And we certainly wouldn’t want that,” Charlotte replied, feeling lighter than she had in years. Such a shame that the death of someone close to the brothers she loved had removed an enormous weight from her. “Although, that happened often enough when we first came to live with James.”

For their newly discovered brother and his bride, telling her and Katie apart had come down to the simple matter of her sister’s birthmark—a tiny mole on the nape of her neck. The memory of Missy craning her neck in a not so subtle attempt to determine the existence—or lack thereof—of said birthmark brought a small smile to Charlotte’s face, eliciting a stark sense of nostalgia.

“Yes, the only person who never confused us was Al—” Katie broke off abruptly, as her eyes flashed wide with alarm. “I didn’t mean to-I mean….”

Tears stung Charlotte’s eyes and her chest constricted. Pulling her sister’s arm tighter against her side, she whispered, “It’s fine. I won’t break at the mention of his name. Truly. Anyway, it was I who….” She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “Alex has always been a big part of our—your life. I certainly don’t expect you to change anything to suit me.”

With a tiny nod, Katie drew Charlotte into the circle of her arms for a gentle hug before setting her away. “Come, you must be famished. Off with your cloak and I shall have the cook prepare you something to eat. Then you can tell me everything that has happened to you in these last five years. I assume you hired a hackney from the station in town.”

Without giving Charlotte an opportunity to respond, her sister turned to Reeves, who stood far enough away as to allow them privacy, but close enough to be summoned to duty forthwith. “Reeves, please have the footmen retrieve my sister’s belongings from the coach.”

“No!” The response sprang sharp and unbidden from Charlotte’s mouth. Even she could hear the panic threading her tone.

Both the butler and her twin treated her to a look of surprise.

“I mean not yet. Katie, there is something I need to tell you—”

A movement, a figure, in the corner of her vision halted her speech. Charlotte shifted her gaze. Her breath and her world came to a shuddering halt.

Alex.

He rounded the stretch of hall leading from the study. Their eyes met across a distance of some forty feet.

Her breath left her completely then. The air surrounding her became charged and hot.

His stride might have faltered but he recovered so swiftly, she couldn’t be certain she hadn’t imagined it.

Charlotte stood frozen, ensnared as deftly and completely as a rabbit in the presence of a rattler preparing to strike. She watched as he proceeded down the seemingly endless corridor toward her.

Senses starved for the flesh and blood man greedily tried to take him in all at once, hoarding away every minute detail to take back with her to feed the lonely nights when dreams and memories were all she’d have…and yet still not enough.

Save the measured fall of his footsteps, silence reigned with a parasitic presence that made speech a novelty and breathing a luxury. Charlotte could do nothing but wait in statue-like stillness while her heart picked up its pace. To even blink would have been unimaginable.

As he drew closer, she began to make out the subtle changes time had wrought in his visage.

In appearance, he looked much the same as the man she’d known and loved—loved still. With hair the black and shine of obsidian brushing the collar of his tan morning coat, and the delicious little dimple in his chin, he had always been surfeit in looks. But the Alex of old had possessed a wicked sort of charm. His smile, lazy and hinting at deeper passions, had caused the palpitation of many a female hearts. Upon their betrothal announcement, the gossip sheets had stated the sound of those very same hearts breaking could be heard from Cornwall to Northumberland.

At present, however, it appeared no smile would dare venture near his lips. Faint lines bracketed his full mouth, the surrounding skin taut and unforgiving in its sternness. And there was an iciness in his expression that pierced her heart with a corresponding blast of cold. He even carried his lean muscular frame with an aloofness, tight and very controlled.

Any hope that she would find in him a smidgeon of warmth, an inkling of the affection he’d once felt for her, wilted and died under his regard. Yet she remained resolute as he advanced upon her, awaiting the first words they would exchange since the day before what should have been their wedding day.

With his every step, her anxiety climbed and her heart stumbled over the hurdle an ocean and five years had created. Twenty steps separating them became ten and then five. He stopped just shy of an arm’s length of her. Continuing to imprison her with his silver-eyed gaze, he finally spoke. “I see you have company.”

Charlotte nearly wept at the sound of his voice, a smoky baritone. Perhaps that was the reason it took her a moment to comprehend he was speaking to Katie and not her. That it was she to whom he referred to as ‘company’.

“Alex, I had no idea you were here,” her sister said with an uncharacteristic catch in her voice.

After a taut silence, he yanked his gaze from Charlotte’s and turned to include her sister in his regard as well as his address. “I instructed Reeves not to disturb you when I arrived. I’m just here to retrieve some documents your brother left for me.”

It was then Charlotte noticed the large envelope clutched in his hand.

“Um, Alex, Char-Charlotte has ju-just now arrived.”

Never had Charlotte heard her sister stammer so. Given the circumstances, it was
she
who should be rattled and out of sorts. She was all that and more.

“So I see,” he replied in clipped tones, keeping his gaze averted from her. As telling and deliberate a gesture as she’d ever witnessed.

Charlotte knew then she would have to initiate any form of communication between them. And who else should do it if not her.

“Hullo, Alex,” she said, finding her courage and her voice. But never had two words taken so much effort to speak.

His jaw firmed, his nostrils flared and an ominous stillness settled over him. A moment later he gave her sister a brisk nod. “I shall leave you to your guest. Good day, Catherine.” His gaze did not venture in her direction again. It was as if, to him, she’d ceased to exist.

Charlotte turned to watch as his long strides carried him across the wool rugs on the marble floors, through the entrance hall, and out the front door.

BOOK: All's Fair in Love and Seduction
5.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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