Guilty Secrets by Jean Hart Stewart by Jean Hart Stewart - Read Online

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Can love really conquer all? Escaping her cruel father’s home had been difficult, but not as difficult as evading her feelings for Adam, her rescuer and the powerful Earl of Landry. Corrie disagrees with him on his political views, but cannot help melting in his arms. Their marriage is passionate, although Adam’s dreadful nightmares are a barrier she cannot breach. But when danger strikes Corrie and her sister Sarah, Adam is the one she turns to. Adam is frantic to save the woman he has come to love. But is their love strong enough to make him finally reveal his guilty secrets?

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ISBN: 9781771277884
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Can love really conquer all? Escaping her cruel father’s home had been difficult, but not as difficult as evading her feelings for Adam, her rescuer and the powerful Earl of Landry. Corrie disagrees with him on his political views, but cannot help melting in his arms.  Their marriage is passionate, although Adam’s dreadful nightmares are a barrier she cannot breach. But when danger strikes Corrie and her sister Sarah, Adam is the one she turns to. Adam is frantic to save the woman he has come to love.  But is their love strong enough to make him finally reveal his guilty secrets?

Guilty Secrets© 2016 by Jean Hart Stewart

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

MuseItUp Publishing

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Cover Art © 2016 by DK Designs

Layout and Book Production by Lea Schizas

eBook ISBN: 978-1-77127-788-4

First eBook Edition *March 2016

To my husband

and all those who’ve had faith in me and my writing.

Guilty Secrets

Jean Hart Stewart

Spies and Roses

Christmas with the Marquis

MuseItUp Publishing

Chapter One

London, 1820, May 19th

From the diary of Adam Landry, Earl of Beaufort:

3 A.M. I do not know how long I can bear these haunting ghosts and still keep my sanity—these ghastly nightmares that haunt me with terrifying regularity, all those wounded and dying men. Their hideous visions invaded my sleep again last night, and my own screams wakened me once more. What in hell’s name can I do to diminish their power over me?

* * * *

Adam Landry dressed for the day, deliberately submerging his thoughts with studied stoicism. Parkins, his valet and former batman, silently tied his cravat, and now adjusted the grey superfine coat over Adam’s impressive shoulders. Adam glanced at his reflection in the glass, reassuring himself there was nothing unusual. But then his distressing nights seldom left a mark others would notice.

Before he checked with the ministry, he’d walk to Hatchard’s and search for some lighter books to help him pass the time between his nightmares and daylight. He’d tried re-reading Ovid last night, but found it impossible. So he’d sat with his haunting thoughts until the dawning sun had cut through the morning mists—his futile thoughts that only deepened his remorse.

The day was a fine one, an almost-blue sky with fluffy clouds scudding after each other. The playful wind was a delight after the last few stormy months, and he found his spirits rising as he strode along Piccadilly, swinging his cane. He would read the latest Paris papers before choosing a book or two.

He swung open the door to Hatchard’s.

A sudden thump in the chest jolted him to a standstill before he could take a step through the door. He automatically reached down and grabbed the arms of the female who’d just crashed into him. A furious young lady, whose medium size made him wonder how she could have barreled into him with enough force to jar his hat to one side of his head. She was clutching frantically at a huge stack of books. He saved her from falling, but not the books, all of which went flying. She turned in his grasp and glared up at him in sputtering anger.

Unhand me, you big oaf! Just look what you’ve done!

Irate amber eyes, large and thickly lashed, glowered as he watched her in fascination. Would her eyes shoot golden sparks for any other passion than anger? He’d seldom seen a female so incensed. He thought of telling her she’d crashed into him but decided that wouldn’t be diplomatic right now. She probably hadn’t been able to see over that heap she was carrying.

She wrenched out of his grasp and tried to tuck back golden-brown hair that had loosened when her bonnet had dislodged. Then with an enchanting but furious moue, she gave up on her hair, but not on scolding him.

You lumbering lout, you’ve made me drop every one. Oh, look at that, I think her spine is broken.

Adam raised his eyebrows, finding no one else around and wondering if he should be alarmed.

I see no one, madam.

Nefertiti, the little whirlwind wailed. I’m sure the binding is cracked. I’ll never forgive you if my books are ruined.

Adam could hardly contain his smile. Certainly, it was curious to see any female so upset about books. Women could get remarkably perturbed about their appearance, but the status of a book? Up until now he’d thought his experience was at least more than knowledgeable. This girl was certainly not your average simpering miss. He started to pick up the books, noting they were all concerned with women of history, when she snatched a book from his hand.

I’ll pick them up myself, she snapped.

Madam, my apologies. I’m sorry I’ve caused you to be so overset. I find it’s hard to enter a store without opening the door. Maybe I should send a herald in front of me announcing my imminent arrival. May I escort you back into the store and replace them?

His teasing words didn’t bring the smile he wanted. All he got was another glare.

Certainly not, I can do that myself if I so decide.

She bent again over the fallen books, ignoring him as if he were nothing but a particularly pesky gnat. Just then a girl came scurrying up. Obviously a maid and late, and just as obviously worried.

Milady, I’m so sorry. It was too nice a day to just sit on the servant’s bench. You generally take so long picking your books I thought I’d have more time. I never should’ve gone for a walk. Let me take those for you.

Adam watched in fascination. If this termagant had ripped up so at him, what would she do to her tardy maid? Dismiss her on the spot?

To his surprise, the spitfire smiled sweetly at her maid and advised her not to be silly; it wasn’t her fault this gentleman had nearly knocked her over. Adam allowed his eyebrows to rise again, and she looked at him and hesitated.

Well, he didn’t exactly knock me over, but all the books were spilled. Here, take these and we’ll get started home.

She started to march away, while Adam stared after her, hoping he was looking haughty and that his inward smile didn’t show. However he looked, it was certainly wasted, since she barely glanced at him. What an unusual girl, to enjoy books so much she’d lashed out at him and yet was kind to her maid. A distinctly odd combination of traits. He’d lately found he was partial to kindness for servants. He’d given his last mistress her conge partly because she’d slapped her maid so hard the poor girl’s head swayed.

He’d observed the titles as he picked up the books. He certainly knew no other female who read so much history. Not only did the books she’d selected seem to be about women, but women who were rulers.

He watched as she stalked off a few paces, and then hesitated and turned back, a slight frown marring her temptingly beautiful face. She’d straightened her bonnet, but wisps of golden chestnut hair still escaped in enticing random. Her eyes were not only large and beautiful, but so candid he could clearly read each mood as she vacillated. Right now he guessed she was reconsidering her anger.

"Maybe it wasn’t all your fault. Good day, sir."

Adam bowed, a slight smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.

Consider me at your service, ma’am. If you need to order new books, please put them on my account. My name is Adam Landry, and they know me here at Hatchard’s.

She looked at him without a smile. At least she was no longer frowning.

That will not be necessary, sir.

She gave him a sketchy nod, and wheeling, left him standing there with a grin on his usually reserved face. She was (evidently) a bluestocking, a type for whom he’d never had any use. She certainly didn’t fawn over men. He didn’t know if she disliked men in general or just him, but no woman had ever rebuked him with so many names in such a short space. Lout and oaf he might accept, but lumbering? She had an interesting vocabulary. His political opponents called him many things, most of them much worse than these that so amused him. Tories were not popular at present, so he took his own share of political abuse for granted. Still, even if her epithets were comparatively mild, they were certainly rude to a lord of his stature.

Why then was he beguiled?

He was still smiling when he absently squared his shoulders with military precision and entered Hatchard’s. He’d never seen this belligerent miss before, and probably never would again. She was certainly not a young woman he would seek out to meet again. Yet in spite of her confrontational words, she’d given him a few moments of relaxation.

Amusement came to him all too seldom.

* * * *

Jottings from the Journal of Cortland Heath, April 19, 1820:

"I must slip away to put down my thoughts in hope of understanding them. Why was I so upset when I walked into Adam Landry? I think because he is so very handsome, and handsome men are known to be the worst betrayers of all. Haughty, good-looking men are a scourge on womankind. That must be the reason. This elegant large specimen takes his appeal for granted.

I trust I’ll never see him again."

* * * *

Cortland put down her pen and going to her nightstand, splashed cold water on her face. She had gotten unreasonably upset this morning, and didn’t want to betray her agitation to her sister. Lovely Sarah, calm and ever-sunny. At twenty she was a year older than Cortland, but Cortland generally made the decisions for them both.

It was after midday, and she had chores to do. Heath House was now far different than the filthy place they’d found when their father had brought Sarah and her in from the country. Which was, of course, why their father had ordered them to come. It was the first time in years he’d had a thing to do with them. It had taken a lot of work and an almost new staff of servants, but the housekeeping was now impeccable. Still, the cook liked to consult daily, as did the butler. It was now a home she and Sarah enjoyed, partly because their father seldom was around. They were careful to keep to their rooms when he did appear.

Sarah met her at the foot of the stairs, laughing as she gave her sister a hug.

I saw the stack of books, Corry. Did you buy out Hatchard’s as usual? Some of them look scuffed up, though, I’m surprised Hatchard’s sold them like that.

Cortland knew she was blushing. A gentleman and I collided, and the books went flying all over the cobblestones. I didn’t think it funny at the time, but it was.

Corry? said Sarah. Collided? How unusual.

I’m afraid it was my fault. I walked right into him. It was like slamming into a large stone statue. He was solid as a rock, and it somehow disconcerted me. And then I blamed him. I imagine he was quite bewildered. Books went airborne, and I stood there ripping up at him.

You didn’t! said Sarah.Yes, she added with a smile, You did.

Don’t worry, Sarah, he was too good-looking to care for any woman’s opinion. He had green eyes, a kind of foresty green, and dark hair with small silver wings at the temples. A very large and strong man with a sinfully compelling voice, deep as a cello. He was completely composed and somewhat amused. Probably has women fawning over him all the time. Wonder if the bounder actually thought I staged the accident. He introduced himself as Adam Landry, and I...heavens, Sarah! He’s the Marquis of Beaufort! That dreadful politician who is in the King’s pocket. Corn Laws, the Reform Bill, the Six Acts of Repression—he’s on the wrong side of everything. I’d have been even angrier if I’d known. The rotter!

 In spite of her indignation, she smiled when Sarah laughed at her. She well knew Sarah thought her far too serious.

But you certainly noticed him, teased Sarah. That was a pretty complete description.

That stopped Corry cold. Yes, she’d definitely noticed him. Everything about him was etched in her mind. His assurance, his restrained power. Unusual for her.

They were standing at the foot of the stairs, and Corry saw the humor of the situation and smiled. She’d ripped into one of the foremost peers of the realm. She couldn’t even remember what all she’d called him. Probably epithets he’d never heard before. The girls fell into each other’s arms laughing.

Just at that moment the outer door opened. To their utter amazement, their father stepped into the hall. A blowsy woman was with him, clutching his arm possessively with one hand and stroking it with the other. The two stood there for a moment in smug complacency, as Sarah and Cortland grew silent in disconcerted surprise.

Their father frowned. He glanced at them with his usual displeasure and then turned with a fatuous smile to the woman.

Lilias, my love, these are my daughters, Cortland and Sarah. I hope you will find them useful. Girls, this is my new countess. Make your curtseys to her immediately, and then come into the parlor. We have things to say to you.

He threw open the door to the parlor. At first Sarah and Cortland were almost too thunderstruck to move, but then they sank into even deeper curtseys than etiquette demanded. It gave them time to recover, while the new countess beamed.

She kept her arm linked to her husband’s, as they swept ahead of the girls.

Magnus, I think they’re sweet. And so pretty. You didn’t tell me how pretty they are. Good-looking girls can have many uses, you know. The countess sounded like a dove who’d never quite learned how to coo. A repressively strong odor of roses enveloped them as she passed.

Sarah and Corry stared at the floor to avoid looking at each other. The voice of the new countess was strident and with more than a hint of Cockney in it. Where had their father unearthed her? More unexplainable, why had he married her? The ton would roar with laughter. What had he been thinking?

Eyeing the countess’s buxom figure, Cortland suspected he’d not exactly been thinking of the opinions of the ton.

Well, daughters, are the countess’s rooms ready for her? I expect you to show her every honor.

Cortland felt her ever-ready temper starting to rise. Sarah shot her a quick glance of warning, and Corry kept her voice deceptively sweet.

I’m so sorry, Father, but they need aired and supplied with fresh linen. If we’d had any warning at all, it would be done, but perhaps you will excuse us now so we can see to everything for the countess’s comfort.

Magnus turned an ugly shade of purple. Before he could explode, his new countess patted his cheek.

There, lover, the girls will do a good job, I know. They have everything in control here, I can see, and I want them to continue to help me all they can. I’ll need time to learn to be a proper countess for you.

To their surprise, their father’s face faded to near its normal color.

Sarah swiftly intervened. Then if you’ll excuse us, madam, we’ll see to preparing your rooms. Would you like tea sent here while you wait?

Lady Rothfield beamed. She obviously enjoyed being waited on.

Oh, lovely, and can you send in a bottle of brandy to sweeten the tea? I find that adds so much to the flavor. Don’t you, lover?

She turned to her husband and placed her hand on his chest, wiggling her fingers and moving them lower and then stopping with a snigger as she noticed the girls’ embarrassment. Lord Magnus caught her hand with a doting grin and gave her a small push toward the settee. The last thing his daughters saw as they left the room was his ham of a hand caressing her plump bottom.

Sweet heaven, murmured Corry after she’d closed the parlor door behind them. He’s as besotted as a randy youngster.

Sarah, as somber as Corry could remember, said. You’re right. He’ll do anything she wants, and she plans for us to be her servants. I don’t like this at all, Corry.

Should we go back to Cortland Abbey?

Corry had always liked the country manor. Her late mother had been relatively happy there, and so had the girls. It had taken years for the young Cortland to stop reliving her father’s perfidy. She had come to accept the knowledge that he was a cruel tyrant. As such, he was better tolerated by distance. Her every instinct was to leave him as soon as possible.

Sarah was still solemn, her eyes grave and thoughtful.

I hope I’m wrong, Corry, but I don’t think we can. I fear by law Father can control us till we are twenty-one. He can’t touch our money, but we must obey him in all else. I think his new wife will have much use for us here.

Cortland snapped her head up and looked mutinous.

Well, as soon as we have the rooms cleaned, I intend to see the Brownings. As our lawyers, they’ll know what to do.

They collected two maids and ascended to the countess’s suite. Corry had not set foot in it since she was eight, when their mother and the girls had all been banished to the abbey.

I’ve been so hesitant to enter this room, Corry said softly after they’d opened the door.

I know. We should have, though, answered Sarah. This stale smell is stifling. At least there’s a good breeze today, and opening the windows will blow much of it out.

We needn’t have stayed away. There’s little of our mother here, said Corry. Just the blue and gold color scheme she loved, but it’s faded and dusty. Somehow I imagine I can smell the lavender scent she used.

Sarah looked doubtful, but said nothing. The four of them soon had the room aired and cleaned, with spotless linens on the bed. Fresh candles and soaps were brought, and Corry could think of nothing more to do.

They’d all worked quietly together, with both Sarah and Cortland aware the maids were agog with curiosity and hoping to pick up any dropped hint of the new countess.

Let’s go inform Lady Rothfield the room is ready, said Sarah. It’s a pleasantly situated suite. She must agree to that.

The sisters went silently down the steps. There was little to say until they had more chance to size up the situation.

That life would be different, very different, they had not a doubt. They were also sure there was little chance the change would be for the better.

* * * *

Jottings from the Journal of Cortland Heath:

I adored my mother, and have nothing but contempt and hatred in my heart for my father. Does that make me wicked? I’m sure some would think so. But I cannot help that. He destroyed any other feeling I had for him long ago. I was only two, but I remember it all too clearly. I’ll never forget or forgive him. I still remember the cracking sound as he struck my mother, even though she had just given birth. To another daughter.

* * * *

Cortland and Sarah escorted the new countess to her suite, the Earl following behind. He paid no attention to his daughters as he gazed hungrily at his bride.

Lilias entered the rooms and glanced around, and Magnus looked suspiciously like an eager puppy as he waited for her reaction.

Well, she intoned, the rooms are certainly spacious.

Magnus beamed as if he’d just been thrown a succulent bone. His daughters were too astonished to say a word.

But it’s all so faded and worn. I just know you’ll want me to redecorate. Reds and purples, don’t you think, my love?

She put her hand on his shirt, and then let it slip down to his trousers. Corry would have sworn she saw her father shiver.

Of course, my love, anything you want. Just tell the girls and they’ll see to it.

Lilias’ hand slipped a little lower, and after giving him a little pat, she grinned and paused her hand.

You’re so good to me, lover. The girls and I will get together tomorrow morning, and I’ll tell them exactly what I want. Now, I think I need a little rest before dinner. I’d like to try out that big bed. Will you keep me company, lover?

Her hand slipped even lower, and Magnus glanced to the girls and growled at them, then riveted his gaze on his bride.

Can’t you see you’re not wanted, you impertinent chits? I’ll let you know when you are.

Lilias smiled, a triumphant smile that was directed at Corry and that somehow frightened her.

Send our dinners up later. Make sure it’s a supper delicious enough for your lord father, with plenty of wine. Then leave us alone for the night. I’ll have a long talk with both of you in the morning, I promise you.

Cheeks flaming, Sarah and Corry murmured their good-byes and fled the room.

Once outside, Corry turned to Sarah. I may not know exactly what happens between a man and a woman, but clearly she’s been well tutored and knows how to use her knowledge. I’ve never seen such aggression! I couldn’t tell which one was going to attack the other.

Just plain distasteful, sniffed Sarah. I don’t think I want to ever have a man look at me like that, as if I were a bone he couldn’t wait to chew on. It was revolting!

Corry shuddered. If that’s love, I don’t want any part of it. And she has something in mind for us. I don’t know what, but I’m sure we won’t like it. I think it’s more than time to visit the Brownings. At once. Will you come with me?

Of course, said Sarah, an unusual grimness in her tone. Of course I’ll come. I’m as anxious as you to find what our choices are.

* * * *

They were at the law offices of Browning and Browning within the hour. The offices were on a side street off Piccadilly, almost unnoticed as one walked past the sumptuous shopping arcades. They were tucked at one end of a small alley, unmarked except for a discreet sign. This was one alley in London that was scrupulously clean. Not a stray piece of dirt or paper was allowed to linger. It was really not an alley so much as a private entranceway.

The Brownings served only their favored elite, and Sir John Browning had long ago put the former countess of Heath in that category. Sir John had recently been knighted for services to the new King. Someone at the political discussion group Corry attended said