Seduced in Secret (Distinguished Rogues series #18)
Seduced in Secret (Distinguished Rogues series #18)
Lord Hurlston’s arranged marriage is a small price to pay for his privileged existence, until that existence is nearly snuffed out with an attempt on his life. It’s a shy wallflower who comes to his rescue. A lovely, brave, enchanting wallflower…who throws his carefully planned future—and his heart—into turmoil.
- Forbidden Love
- Man in Peril
- Male Virgin
When her parents announce they intend to break their promise to remain in London society for another year, Charlotte Waters is also given an ultimatum—make a suitable match immediately or start packing her trunks. Since leaving England is the last thing she wants, Charlotte puts aside her foolish longing for love and throws herself into the hunt for any proposal of marriage with the help of her good friends. However, her persistent infatuation for an engaged earl proves a great distraction when it becomes clear that his life is in peril…and Charlotte is the only one who’s noticed.
Winston Bell, Earl of Hurlston, has his position in society, a loving mother, loyal friends, and an arranged marriage he’s willing honor for duty, if not love—until a sweet, brave, and normally blushing wallflower puts herself in danger to save his life. His gratitude slowly blossoms into an attraction to a woman he shouldn’t long to seek out at every turn. But when another attempt is made on his life, Charlotte Waters is fighting right by his side again, transforming attraction to deep desire. Can he prevent falling further under the spell of a woman he shouldn’t want?
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
Charlotte Waters complained and cursed—under her breath, of course—but it was no use. They were going to be late because her parents only hurried when it served their interests. Now she was in danger of missing the most important announcement of the season…and her life.
Papa set his hat over his steely gray hair with great ceremony. “Well, I think I’m ready to go out. What of you, Mrs. Waters?”
“I feel I’ve forgotten something,” Mama muttered, looking around and patting her sides.
“You’ve forgotten nothing, Mama,” Charlotte promised, trying not to roll her eyes even as she put an arm behind her mother’s back. Mother had once left port without Charlotte, her only daughter, and their luggage. She hadn’t returned for the luggage—and Charlotte—for close to a month. To say Charlotte was forgotten by her parents most of the time was an understatement. She’d learned to look out for herself the hard way. “We must go.”
Mother took a step toward the door, but Father unfortunately didn’t.
“I say, Mrs. Waters, did you perchance have time to read the mail this morning?” he asked. “There was a letter sent by the Duke of Falconbridge. I put it by your chair earlier.”
“I did indeed see it, Mr. Waters,” Mama replied. “It is an intriguing idea to go back and examine what we first saw through the lens of long experience. Our first collaboration was where it all began for us.”
“He’s described a well-funded venture for a change, too,” Papa said with a delighted chuckle and sparkling eyes. “There would be no half measures or hardship when you travel on a peer’s unlimited account. Not like the first time, eh? We nearly had to tote our own trunks through the desert that first year.”
Charlotte pressed against her mother’s side, hoping to move her by sheer body weight alone. Unfortunately, Mama was quite tall and had excellent muscle tone and resisted initially.
But Charlotte persevered and she managed to maneuver her mother out to the top step. “There’s not a moment to lose.”
“Yes, there is much to be done,” her mother assured her, turning to cup Charlotte’s cheek. It might have been endearing if Mama’s full attention had remained upon Charlotte for longer than a heartbeat. She turned back to Father, who had thankfully followed them outside. “I think it could not come at a better time for us,” Mama replied.
Charlotte grabbed both her parents by the hand and towed them down the front steps as fast as she could while they continued their conversation. The carriage had been waiting half an hour already to take them into the heart of London. Charlotte bullied her father to enter the carriage first, and then her mother followed, of course.
Only then did Charlotte settle herself into the carriage and give the order to depart.
If Charlotte left it to her father to provide the coachman with instructions, they might still be sitting before the house for a week while her parents debated which roads to travel to reach their destination. Father did enjoy the sound of his own voice, and Mama loved nothing more than to debate every issue. The only thing they ever agreed about immediately was the importance of their work translating obscure historical texts. Their obsession with the history of far-flung places surpassed their interest in anything nearby.
While her parents continued their conversation about Falconbridge’s letter and their work, Charlotte tuned them out and strove to calm her racing heart. This might just be the most terrible day of her life, and her parents had no idea of her anxiety. It was rumored to be the day a most important wedding date was announced, officially, with the calling of the banns for an arranged marriage.
The cream of the ton could be in attendance today.
But only one person mattered. A man. And not just any man. The earl Charlotte loved in vain. She wanted one last long look at Lord Hurlston as a bachelor before he took the fatal step toward becoming a married man.
The calling of the banns would make him officially unavailable forever.
Although Hurlston could hardly be aware of her existence, Charlotte was determined to be there to support him today. He was not marrying for money or love—well perhaps there was money involved though she’d not been privy to the details. He was doing his duty to please his family in a marriage arranged long before she’d ever met him.
Charlotte railed silently about that, as she always had when she considered his future. It was not fair. No one could love or admire Lord Hurlston more than she did. But she hadn’t a chance to prove her worth to him and never could. Lord Hurlston had been betrothed since childhood to a neighboring family’s daughter—Elizabeth Mayflower.
A lovely name, and she was reputed to be beautiful, too. Not that Charlotte had seen her yet. Few in society had, in fact. Hurlston had kept his bride in the country for years pending their marriage. But he was a permanent fixture in society and continued to frequent tonnish amusements as a carefree bachelor.
But not for long. If the banns were read today, he’d be married in a month. So, today Charlotte must swallow this last bitter draft and then try to put her hopeless admiration for the unattainable man firmly behind her.
First, Charlotte would witness the calling of the banns with a smile on her face. Wish him every happiness if she came close enough to him to speak a few words. She had not been privy to any actual discussions of the wedding, but wallflowers gossiped, which is why she’d known it was vital she attend church today.
She peered out the window, anxious that their carriage stop for nothing. She had to see him…Winston. Charlotte had no qualms about admiring him from afar so long as he was not married. It might be her last chance to do so without guilt. He would of course spend the next weeks escorting his bride about Town, hanging on her every word and deed. He might even be so busy that they never spoke again.
To mark the occasion, if it came to pass, she would spend the remainder of this day mourning a love that could never be.
Charlotte swiveled to look at her parents, realizing they’d fallen silent. That only happened when they’d reached an agreement. “What was it about Falconbridge’s letter that’s so important?”
“My dear daughter, I despair of your flighty mind.” Her father set his lips into a disapproving line. “You were told that Falconbridge has offered to fund our next expedition.”
“Yes, in two years’ time,” she replied. The discussion about another trip to Africa had begun before their return to London and had raged between her restless parents every day since.
“No. Sooner than that. Funds have been committed for a voyage before winter sets in. No point wasting our time here in London when we could be doing something worthwhile.”
Charlotte gaped at them, shocked. “But you promised to stay in London until I am married!”
Mama clucked her tongue. “Do not be shrill. Your father’s work is important.”
Charlotte braced herself into the seat. “And my life is not?”
At the start of the season, her parents had grudgingly promised to remain in London until she wed. Two consecutive seasons she’d been promised. Another expedition meant giving up on her dream to have a home and security, packing up her possessions, saying farewell to friends, and leaving Hurlston behind, too. Not that he’d notice her absence. But she would feel his, and everyone else’s.
Charlotte might have enjoyed travel when she was younger, without knowing what she’d missed out on. Now she was keen to find herself a husband and start a family. She had dreamed all her life of having a place to call home. Somewhere that she’d stay longer than a few months. To have the same friends year after year and have a loving husband to kiss and talk to.
One glance at her parents’ closed-off faces and tight lips told her all she needed to know. She could argue till she was blue in the face, scream until her throat was hurt, cry until she had no more tears to shed…but they’d made up their minds to go now rather than wait for her to marry.
They were taking Charlotte with them whether she liked it or not.
She feared they’d never want to return to England, and where would that leave her? Stranded in some faraway port, a spinster firmly on the shelf—her memory of ballrooms and dinner parties and dancing slowly fading.
Her parents had never been comfortable in England. Conforming to society’s strict rules and expectations of engaging in conversation irritated them, but it pleased Charlotte very much. They thought nothing of dragging her into wilderness filled with dangerous creatures with sharp teeth. The only danger here was a rogue with ruin on his mind.
And none had considered Charlotte for that yet.
She let out a frustrated sigh. “Let me stay behind. Please. It would cost very little for room and board for me here.”
Mother sighed, but it was Father who spoke to end the discussion. “Enough, daughter. Your place is with us.”
Charlotte desperately wanted a settled life in England. She’d never have that if she let her parents drag her from pillar to post.
St. George’s church suddenly came into view, and the sight of its tall spires darkened her heart even further. She could never have a life with Lord Hurlston as her husband—she’d always known that—but thanks to her parents’ selfish obsession, she might be denied any life in England at all.
Charlotte wet her lips, trying to wipe the sadness from her heart. She usually enjoyed going out to mingle with society. But her parents’ news was a double blow to her usual optimism.
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