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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Wonderful
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“Spoken like a true libertine.”

“I am a libertine. I can’t deny it.”

“Well, I’m not loose.
And
I’m about to be married.”

So am I,
he nearly admitted, but didn’t. His pending wedding was a distasteful reality, and when he was with Evangeline he hated to think about negative topics. Besides, his life with Priscilla had no connection to Evangeline. The two worlds didn’t intersect. Why mention his engagement? There was no point.

She looked beautiful and conflicted, and she was stirring his protective instincts. He was on the verge of begging her to travel to London with him so he could shower her with the boons he’d previously promised. Yet he’d tendered the offer, and she’d refused it. He wouldn’t behave so foolishly ever again.

“Everyone’s in bed,” he soothed. “There’s no one to know what we’re doing.”


I
know.”

“As do I, but with my leaving in the morning, this is our last chance to be together. We shouldn’t squander it.”

“You’re pressuring me horridly.”

“Am I?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me to stop then,” he said. “Tell me, and I will.”

She groaned with dismay. “I can’t tell you. You overwhelm me. You goad me into making bad choices.”

“Good. Now hush.”

He was kissing her again, caressing her breasts. She was a very sexual creature, and he was able to swiftly draw her into the spiral of pleasure. Gradually, he tugged up the hem of her skirt, baring her calves, her knees. She didn’t seem to notice, or if she did, she didn’t slap him away.

He arrived at the vee of her thighs, and he slid a finger inside her, then another. She was already so stimulated from his ministrations that it took no further effort to pitch her into a strident orgasm.

They’d been whispering, shielding their voices to avoid detection but, suddenly, she cried out. He covered her lips with his, capturing the sound, swallowing it until slowly, languidly, she floated down and landed—exhausted and exhilarated—in his arms.

“Oh, Lord Run,” she murmured, “what was that? Was that passion?”

“Yes, and quite a stunning example of it too.”

“Am I still a…a…”

“Yes, yes, you’re fine.”

He gazed at her, and her innocent blue eyes were troubled and confused. He should have felt guilty, should have felt like the cad he was, but he was suffering no remorse at all. He’d betrayed his cousin. So what? He’d betrayed his fiancée. So what? He’d goaded Evangeline into conduct she’d never intended. So what?

He was Aaron Drake, Viscount Run, master of his life and the people in it. Rules no longer applied to him.

“Don’t be sad,” he told her.

“I’m not.”

“And don’t you dare be sorry we did this.”

“I’m not sorry exactly. I’m just…just…” She blew out a heavy breath. “I can’t describe what I am.”

“It was simply kissing, Evangeline.”

“It was more than that, Lord Run, and you know it.”

“Call me Aaron.”

“I can’t, and you mustn’t call me Evangeline. I’m afraid you’ll forget and use my Christian name when you shouldn’t.”

“I won’t forget.”

A frown creased her brow, and he wished he could alleviate her concerns, that he could make her understand there was no reason to worry. Their behavior was a trifle, a lark. In his sordid world, it was practically expected. It was silly to fuss over it.

“Why are you so upset?” he asked.

“I should confess to my fiancé. He should be apprised so he can decide if he still wants me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not
confessing
to anyone. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I have! I’m not like you and your friends. I’m extremely disturbed by all this.”

“You haven’t had the experiences that I’ve had, so you must listen to me. We’re adults and we’re very attracted to each other. We acted on it. That’s all it is. We’ve harmed no one. There’s no sin or damnation involved.”

“Have you tried this with other women?”

His cheeks flushed with chagrin. “Yes.”

“Many times?”

“Not…many. Some.”

“So…I’m not abnormal.”

“No, you’re very, very normal.”

Despite his reassurances, she was pulling down her skirt, covering her legs. She was reeling, struggling to convince herself he was telling the truth, that their conduct was perfectly acceptable. Her distress rattled him, reminding him of how innocent she was, of how dissolute he could be.

He’d forged ahead when he shouldn’t have, and he might have happily spent the night explaining their situation, showing her even more salacious misdeeds. But furtive footsteps sounded in the hall, then giggles. They froze as Bryce and Florella sneaked by, likely off to the kitchen for a snack or perhaps to the lake to flit about naked in the cool water.

Evangeline’s eyes were wide with silent alarm, and he visually urged her not to be afraid. They huddled down, hidden from view, until Bryce and Florella vanished and the house quieted again.

Appearing angry and terrified, she crawled over him and slid to the floor with a muted thump. He rolled to face her, and they were nose to nose.

“You are so dangerous to me,” she said.

“I don’t mean to be.”

“Can you imagine what would have happened if they’d entered this room?”

“They didn’t.”

“You’re trotting off to London tomorrow, but I’ll still be here. If I had wrecked my chance with Vicar Bosworth, what would I have done?”

He might have told her that Bryce and Florella wouldn’t have been shocked, wouldn’t have cared that she was with Aaron, but he didn’t suppose he should.

She was buttoning her dress, scooping up the combs he’d yanked from her hair. He felt a hard object under his hip and dug around to find that her goddess statue had fallen out of her pocket. He held it out to her, and she grabbed it.

“I’ve never acted this way before,” she said.

“I realize that.”

“I’m not loose or easy. Please don’t think I am.”

“You’re
not
loose. I could never think that about you.”

“And if you return to Fox Run someday, how will we get on? I’ll be a wife, but you’ll know what sort of trollop I am deep down.”

The word
wife
agitated him, but he ignored the bubble of anguish that rose in his chest. “Don’t worry about the future. I came in here tonight because I couldn’t bear to leave without seeing you one last time.”

“I would hate to have squandered your good opinion.”

“You couldn’t.”

“I’m so glad to hear you say so.” She breathed a sigh of relief.

“I thought it would be remarkable to dally with you, and I couldn’t go without learning for sure.”

She chuckled miserably. “It’s still wrong though—no matter how you view it. We shouldn’t have proceeded.”

“But we did, and it’s over, and I won’t have you fretting about it.”

For an eternity, she hesitated, then ultimately said, “All right, I won’t.”

“I’ll never tell anyone what occurred,” he promised.

“Neither will I.”

“But I’ll always secretly be very, very happy that we were together like this.”

“I’ll always be happy too.”

He pulled her to him and stole a final, quick kiss. She allowed the briefest touch of her lips to his, then she leapt to her feet, and ran out. The echo of her strides faded down the hall so swiftly she might not have ever been there at all.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Have you always been an actress?”

“Yes, ever since I was a girl.”

“How did you begin?”

“A group of traveling players came through our village. I was allowed to attend their performance, and I was so enchanted by it that I ran away with them.”

“You ran away?”

Evangeline gaped at Florella Bernard.

Often in Evangeline’s younger years, she’d wondered if she shouldn’t run away to London to pursue a life on the stage. She’d wanted to sing and dance and perform—it had been a nearly uncontrollable obsession—but Miss Peabody had frowned on her displays of talent.

Evangeline had chafed and fumed and battled Miss Peabody, but she’d never have been courageous enough to flee. And of course, there’d been frequent horror stories about what happened to naïve women in the city. The tales had served as a warning not to contemplate such a rash act.

She’d swallowed down her worst impulses, had settled for a world of students and school, of learning, then teaching.

But that old dream still resonated. She felt there was a more exciting destiny awaiting her out on the horizon, and she’d missed the turn that would have led her to it.

“Did you ever see your parents again?” Evangeline asked. “What did they think?”

“I was an orphan in a very squalid orphanage,” Miss Bernard confided. “There was no one to care much if I vanished. It was one less mouth to feed.”

“I’m certain that’s not true. Someone must have missed you.”

“During that period, I was changing from girl to woman. If I
was
missed, it was for reasons we probably shouldn’t mention.”

“I won’t even ask what you mean.”

Evangeline’s cheeks flushed bright red, and Miss Bernard laughed.

“I’ve shocked you. I’m sorry. I’m so used to being around scoundrels like Bryce that I forget there are normal people who are easily offended.”

“I’m not offended,” Evangeline said. “I’m merely surprised by such a frank admission. I’m accustomed to more reticence in my conversations.”

“And I’m fully prepared to blurt out my entire sordid biography without hesitation.” Miss Bernard laughed again. “The owner at the orphanage had taken a particular interest in me, and with my being so pretty, it was hard to hide from him. I decided it was silly to stay and be molested, so I left.”

“How old were you?” Evangeline inquired.

“Thirteen? I’ve never been sure of my age or my birthday.”

“That’s so young. You were very brave.”

“Or very foolish. I guess it depends on your point of view. I had a knack for acting, and I reinvented myself. Paltry, pathetic Flora Smith became Florella Bernard.” She pronounced her stage name in a dramatic way. “The rest—as they say—is history.”

“Are you successful? I apologize, but I’m not familiar with the London theater.”

“It’s all right. I wouldn’t expect you to have heard of me.”

“Are you able to earn a living?”

“Most of the time. Occasionally, I supplement it by liaisons with men like Bryce.” Evangeline’s cheeks grew even redder, and Miss Bernard looked chagrinned. “I’ve shocked you again.”

Evangeline knew she should end the discussion. Miss Bernard’s habits were not anything a potential vicar’s wife should learn. But Evangeline was so intrigued by Miss Bernard, by her ready acceptance of what any decent female would deem to be grossly immoral conduct.

“No, no, I’m not shocked,” Evangeline insisted. “I’m fascinated. There are such awful stories about the scandalous types who are drawn to the theater, but you seem very normal to me.”

“Yes, we’re all very normal—except perhaps in some of our personal relationships.”

“Yes, except for that.”

They smiled, Evangeline realizing that a friendship was forming. Considering the circumstances when they’d met, it was odd to fathom, but Evangeline found herself liking Miss Bernard more and more.

Part of it was due to the fact that they were roughly the same age and enjoyed many of the same pursuits. But also part of it was that Lord Run had left, and she was rambling around the large house, feeling lost and out of sorts. Her afternoon socializing with Vicar Bosworth didn’t relieve the tedium.

Evangeline had just suffered through a dreary visit to the vicarage, much of it spent in awkward conversation with Widow Bosworth. On arriving home, Miss Bernard had been loafing in a downstairs parlor. When she’d suggested a walk in the garden, Evangeline had instantly agreed to accompany her.

They’d been together for over an hour and were headed back to the manor. Their chat had shown they actually had quite a bit in common. They were both orphans. They’d grown up in the care of people who hadn’t liked them very much and who had viewed them as difficult. They had a similar love of performing and relished an audience’s applause.

“I don’t see my position with Bryce as being much different from yours,” Miss Bernard said.

Evangeline scowled. “What do you mean?”

“You’re marrying for fiscal stability, and I’ve attached myself to a man for the same reason.”

“Don’t you worry about the moral implications?”

“The moral implications of what?”

“Ah…well…of living in sin.”

“I’m not religious, Evangeline, so no, I don’t worry about it. If it’s a choice between moral misbehavior and starvation, I’ll take the moral misbehavior any day. I’ve been hungry, and I’ve had a full belly. I’d rather have the full belly.”

“I’ve never been hungry,” Evangeline told her.

“That makes your decisions easier.”

“Have you a genuine affection for Mr. Blair?”

“I suppose you could call it affection.”

“Then how do you explain your dalliance with Lord Run?”

“He’s much richer than Bryce.”

It was such a cold, pragmatic reply, and Evangeline was confused by it. How could money be all that mattered in picking a man?

“His wealth is what’s important to you?”

“No, he has an air of mystery that’s intriguing too. Bryce is all sunny temperament and happy moments. With him, what you see is what you get. With Aaron Drake—should he be roused into a reaction—I can’t guess what sort of explosion might occur.”

“I can’t imagine Lord Run exploding.” Evangeline was lying. She could absolutely imagine it.

“Plus, he’s handsome as the devil. Bryce is handsome too, make no mistake. But Aaron is
rich
and handsome. When his fortune is factored in, there’s no comparison.”

“Mr. Blair isn’t bothered by your interest in Lord Run?”

“Bryce is aware that I’m a mercenary.” Miss Bernard smirked. “It’s part of my charm.”

Evangeline wanted to steer them further onto the topic of Aaron Drake. Miss Bernard had known him forever, and Evangeline suspected she could discover a great deal of exciting information.

Yet it was hard to probe for personal details, and in the end, she probably shouldn’t. She was mourning his absence, but she couldn’t breathe a word of her upset. She felt as if she was carrying a heavy secret that might ultimately choke her to death.

BOOK: Wonderful
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