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Alluring Secrets - Lynne Connolly

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Secrets

Secrets Trilogy, Book 2

Now that his best friend is blissfully married, Severus Granville, Earl of Swithland, finds himself dealing with a wholly unfamiliar urge-to settle down and produce an heir. But among the bevy of beauties vying for his attention, none hold his interest except for one: Penelope. Clumsy, intelligent, appealing Penelope is the one woman with whom he could escape...but she's expected to marry another. Afraid she'll be labeled an unmarriageable bluestocking, Penelope's family forces her to go without her badly needed spectacles in public, and to hide her intelligence. Though she has loved Severus for years, the best she can hope for is a loveless union with a perfectly suitable-and perfectly boring-cousin. Except Severus seems to have changed his mind. Hours spent in his rooftop observatory lead to a passion neither of them expected. Yet just as their eyes are opened to the possibility of lasting love, Penelope is snatched away, a pawn in a plot to destroy her family and make her a slave to a man she hardly knows. If he wants to keep his heart's treasure, Severus will have to fight for her with everything within him-mind, body and soul.

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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Alluring Secrets

Copyright © 2008 by Lynne Connolly

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Dedication

To Jean and Kelvin. Thank you for your dining room table and for being so patient with me.

Chapter One

Miss Penelope Makepiece stared out of the carriage window at the imposing sight of the North Front of Swithland House. It was enough to daunt the heart of the boldest young lady, its gleaming bulk looming above them. The traveling carriage drew to a decorous halt before the steps leading to the huge front door.

Here lived her dearest friend in all the world and the man she had made a complete cake of herself over. A shame they were brother and sister.

Penelope waited until a servant had ceremoniously handed down her Aunt Cecilia before she took the gloved hand of the liveried footman and climbed out of the carriage, careful to keep her footing on the narrow steps. Without her spectacles she was apt to trip and stumble, and her aunt did not allow her to wear them in public. Her cousin Toby Makepiece, Aunt Cecilia’s only and most beloved son, followed her. His thin brown hair, tied back in a fashionable queue, stirred in the slight breeze that was all this warm day had to offer.

She had no time to study the façade, as the servants immediately led them indoors where the superior butler waited to greet them and conduct them to their rooms. Penelope found that the broad, shallow steps leading up to the Great Hall were not difficult to climb without stumbling.

The Great Hall was one of the sights of Hertfordshire, or so the guidebooks dedicated to that area of the country declared. The eminent artist Sir James Thornhill had decorated the walls and ceiling in the previous century and the result was staggeringly grandiose. The blur of color swamped Penelope’s senses.

Good afternoon, Mrs. Makepiece, Miss Makepiece, Mr. Makepiece, the butler intoned. I am Hutton, and I have the honor of being Lord Swithland’s butler. If you should require anything during your stay here, please do not hesitate to call for myself or the housekeeper, Mrs. Yeovil.

Mrs. Makepiece nodded graciously, and turned at a sudden movement at the back of the hall. Out of a side door ran a young lady, carrying the scent of hyacinth with her. Antonia! Penelope forgot all her misgivings on seeing her friend.

Penelope, it’s so good to see you!

They embraced, Penelope feeling her friend’s warmth through the fine silk of her gown. She hadn’t seen Antonia for some time.

Antonia drew back, her arms still resting on Penelope’s waist, and studied her face. I’m so pleased to see you in such good looks, Penelope. At Penelope’s snort, Antonia raised a dark brow. What, you don’t think you are? A trim figure, dark hair with that hint of fire and your eyes could enchant most men. I’ve seen Peter Worsley watching you with appreciation, and he’s not the only one.

Penelope looked into the smiling eyes and felt better than she had for months. While she didn’t share Antonia’s delusions about her looks, it did her good to share her thoughts with her friend. Peter Worsley? I doubt that. He prefers high flyers, and blondes like Mrs. Wisheart.

You’re wrong, Penelope. You might not have the flashy beauty of the Wishearts of this world, but your kind of beauty will last longer.

Penelope laughed. She knew she didn’t show to effect in a ballroom and she’d never seen any eligible male looking her way. Not that she could see anything beyond the end of her nose.

Antonia gave her a sympathetic smile. I was so sorry to hear about your mother. I haven’t seen you since she passed away,

Penelope nodded. She’d been ill for some time. It had been two years since her mother’s death, but Penelope had not been close to her for some time before that. The late Lady Wimbourne had been too intent on giving her husband an heir to care for her sole living girl child.

I hardly remember my mama, Antonia confessed. I think Sev remembers her better. Severus, Earl of Swithland. The rush of emotion she felt at the mere mention of his name no longer surprised Penelope. As she always did, she put the feeling aside. He was not for her. Papa will arrive shortly. He has a few matters to arrange in Town first, he said.

After making a pretty curtsey to Penelope’s aunt and her cousin, Antonia linked arms with Penelope, clearly intending to accompany them upstairs. Sev is in London on business, but we expect him back any day to attend his house party. You are early, but not as early as some of the guests. No doubt he’ll bring some more of his friends with him. Sev hardly ever travels alone. She sniffed. Always in state.

Penelope grinned. She didn’t know how Severus Granville always managed to be surrounded by sycophants and attendants in town. To do him justice, he didn’t encourage them, but they clustered around him anyway. She hoped they would keep him away from her.

The remembrance of her girlhood crush stayed with her to torment her in the lonely nights. Occasionally she would remember her declaration of love and his look of horror, justified, since no one could wish for the advances of a clumsy, gawky girl, just fifteen. The remembrance subdued her rising pleasure at meeting her old friend, and she followed her upstairs with a decorous tread.

Hutton led the way up the broad marble staircase and along several elegantly decorated corridors to the guest rooms. Antonia accompanied them, chattering all the way, and followed Penelope into the pretty room appointed to her, plumping down on the daybed at the foot of the canopied four-poster. Do you like it? I chose it myself, it’s near my room and it’s one of the prettiest guest rooms in the house.

Penelope peered around, squinting.

Oh for goodness’ sake put them on. A note of irritation entered Antonia’s voice.

Penelope grinned. Diving into the pocket slit in her gown, she drew out a long embroidered case and took out a pair of spectacles. She perched them on her nose and gazed around with interest. "It is a pretty room. I knew the color was pretty, of course, but I didn’t know what the detail looked like." The predominant color was a pale yellow, enhanced by plaster bows and the occasional cherub.

Now she could see Antonia properly, Penelope could also see her look of exasperation, a slight frown marring the smooth brow.

Why don’t you wear them all the time? You got on well at school once they discovered you needed them. You look attractive in them. They add piquancy to your face. At least they would, if they were a better style.

Penelope forbore to tell her she had little choice. The heavy, tortoiseshell frames were the only ones available at the hurried consultation, which was all her mother had allowed her when she’d bought them five years before.

Penelope used one finger to push the offending spectacles further up her nose. Aunt Cecilia feels the same way as my mother did. Neither of them allow me to wear my spectacles in public.

Antonia made a sound of annoyance. Don’t they realize how difficult it is for you? You can’t even see to dance, for heaven’s sake!

It was true; if Penelope hadn’t learned to dance at school, where the teachers had allowed her to wear her spectacles, she would have no confidence at all on the dance floor. As it was, she stumbled her way around unfamiliar rooms; the number of times she under or overestimated the distance between her hand and a doorknob was well into double figures. Taking due care of every movement she made paid its toll and Penelope often stumbled. Society labeled her clumsy, but her fortune and birth made her acceptable. Sometimes she wished it didn’t.

Aunt Cecilia feels that I wouldn’t attract anyone wearing them, and people would label me a bluestocking.

Most people assumed she was a little slow, but Penelope didn’t mention that to Antonia. No sense her friend getting annoyed all over again. I manage.

As it was, Antonia tsked. Men are not always as stupid as women think them. What will you do about your spectacles once you’re married?

My aunt says a marriage will be arranged in due course, and after that I may do as I please. She shrugged. I don’t suppose my husband will let me wear them either. But after I’m married I might decide to please myself.

Well he is very foolish if he doesn’t let you wear them. At first indignant, Antonia’s eyes soon filled with speculation, a look Penelope knew well and one that had led her into trouble in the past. Have they anyone in mind?

Penelope shrugged. Toby, of course. It would tie up the family’s inheritance nicely.

Antonia shrugged. It comes to us all.

Toby was pleasant, but uninspiring, and in the absence of anyone more exciting, Penelope considered him a much better choice than many others.

Antonia’s brown eyes lit up. "Tell you what, Penny, shall I take you around the house tomorrow? With your spectacles?"

Penelope clapped her hands in a gesture she thought she’d forgotten at school. "That would be wonderful! I love this house, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it properly."

While many people guessed Penelope had a problem with her sight, no one except her family, her maid and her old school friends knew how bad it was. In fact, Penelope could barely see two feet in front of her face before her vision began to deteriorate into blurred into patches of color. It had worsened over the years, and Penelope had a secret fear she vouchsafed to no one; if it got any worse, would she go blind? There was no one she could ask, no one she knew who had any knowledge of the science of optics, so she kept her fears to herself.

Now she could see properly, she rose and went to the window to enjoy the view. Her room looked out over the clipped lawns of the South Front, leading to the great lake, a shimmer of blue in the summer sun. The occasional spark of brilliance showed where the breeze ruffled its surface. I love this house, she breathed.

Antonia came to stand at her side. "It is a lovely house, but I daren’t think about it too much. I’ll have to move on soon, so I mustn’t become too attached to it. How do you feel about your father’s house?"

The Abbey? The same way you do about Swithland House, I suppose. I don’t think of it as a permanent residence. I will move on, unless I marry Toby.

Is it worth it? Your portion is enough to attract a number of suitors, isn’t it?

Penelope shrugged. I’m quite an heiress, otherwise people would be a lot ruder about me. I’ve had offers, but no one who took my fancy. Aunt Cecelia says I should take my time, not accept any offers until I’d thought about it and discussed it with her. She’s probably right, there are any number of fortune hunters about and some of them can be quite charming.

Antonia put her hand on Penelope’s sleeve. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there when your mother died. I was grateful to Severus for sending me to Italy when I asked him to, but I wanted to cut it short when I heard.

Penelope turned away from the view to touch her friend’s hand, moved by Antonia’s words There was no need. You would have made me feel guilty. And I had your wonderful letters to look forward to. They cheered me up no end.

They stood for a while in silence, looking out at the glorious vista in front of them. This time next year there was no knowing where they would be, what they would be looking at. However, they would still be friends. Both knew that without a doubt.

Dinner that evening was a small affair. Penelope, her Aunt Cecilia, her cousin Toby and Antonia. They met in the Yellow Drawing room, which was one of the smaller rooms, but was still too large for the four people present. Toby was in his element, with three ladies to take care of. His gallantry was extreme, his condescension matching it.

Of course, I must make the most of this opportunity to enjoy the company of two such lovely young ladies. And Mama, of course. Neither lovely lady knew quite what to say, but Mrs. Makepiece smiled indulgently.

Antonia flicked her fan open with a slight air of irritation. "You’re too kind, sir."

A great pleasure. I understand I won’t be enjoying this solitary delight for long, so I must make the most of it.

Antonia looked at him, one delicate brow upraised, but he addressed Penelope. While you were upstairs, a message arrived for you. I happened to be passing through the hall at the time. Your father will be arriving, my dear, in company with his lordship, Lady Antonia’s brother. And several other guests.

Not for the first time Penelope wondered at Toby’s genius at being in the right place at the right time. His gossip was invariably of the superior kind. She had often suspected him of listening at doors. Do you know who these guests might be?

Toby smiled a secretive smile. A bouquet of the most eligible ladies in London. Together with a raft of the most eligible young men. My guess is that your estimable brother, Lady Antonia, has decided to take a bride.

Penelope caught her breath and glanced at her friend, who smiled sweetly, not a whit abashed. It’s about time. Sev has been looking and flirting for far too long. Perhaps it will settle him.

Penelope suspected more than flirting. With his two particular friends, Severus had been cutting a deep swathe through the beauties of London for several years past.

How he could appear arch, Penelope didn’t know, but Toby managed it. Why Lady Antonia. Are you not the least bit disconcerted to hear the news?

Antonia fanned herself with an elegant flick of her wrist. Not at all. In fact, he mentioned it before he left for London. I’ve been his hostess since I came of age, Mr. Makepiece, but now I must look to my own future. Sev mentioned it some time past.

Toby quirked a light brown eyebrow and Antonia laughed. Oh I have no one in particular in mind, sir, but I must consider the matter carefully. I have no one but my brother to look out for me, and he can hardly do so while he remains unwed.

Toby frowned a little. I cannot fault your reasoning, although your manner may be thought a little forward in some circles. It seems a pity. Perhaps if Penelope was to marry she might help...? He left the sentence unfinished, but from the significant glance he bestowed on his cousin, it was difficult to mistake his meaning.

Antonia covered Penelope’s hand with her own. I had no idea my dearest Penelope was considering the awful step. A lie, but a kind one. I think no young man is courting her at present?

Well, not exactly, Toby admitted. Penelope relished his discomfiture. Toby frowned and chewed his bottom lip. He hadn’t courted her, just took her acceptance for granted. He was her father’s heir, and she was the possessor of a considerable portion, most of which had come from her mother’s estate. Her father would welcome the match, but so far he had not pressured her to take it up, and Toby had not yet proposed.

Lord Wimbourne had often been away from home since his wife died. Penelope had spent more time with her aunt, who had offered to chaperone her until her marriage, but she soon learned that was an excuse to bring her and Toby together.

She had to consider her marriage imminent, or dwindle into an old maid. Toby might be prosy and stuffy, but Penelope believed he cared for her, and he had no serious defects of character like a tendency to gamble or debauchery.

Unlike Antonia’s reprehensible brother, who had done his best to enjoy the treats a jaded world could offer a wealthy and titled reprobate. Sev’s prowess in bed and at the gaming tables had been legendary, even though his activities had declined in recent years. Penelope had every intention of questioning Antonia about his activities, but she couldn’t do it here.

Severus fascinated her. He’d always been kind to her in a big brother kind of way but never taken her seriously, or noticed her particularly. That summer ten years ago had ruined the casual friendliness between them, and it had been all her fault. She had conceived a passion for him, one that must have proved acutely embarrassing to a boy on the threshold of manhood, and he regarded her with caution now. She was sorry for it. Now it seemed he was to take the next big step in his life. She wondered what kind of woman would keep Severus Granville happy. No doubt she would find out soon.

Dinner was pleasant, and uneventful. Afterwards they played cards until bedtime, in a friendly atmosphere

Her maid had just left the room, having seen Penelope securely into her voluminous nightdress and robe, when Mrs. Makepiece, similarly attired, knocked, and without waiting for a reply, entered.

I particularly wish to speak to you, Penelope. Penelope turned around on the stool before her dressing table where she had been polishing her nails. Her aunt sat herself on the daybed, feet firmly together on the floor, hands clasped in her lap. I do not wish you to feel obliged in any way, she began.

Penelope saw the expression on her aunt’s face and her stomach tightened. Of course not, aunt.

You have few people to look to for advice and I think I am one of the few who can venture to do so, her aunt said, fairly launched on what Penelope suspected to be a carefully constructed speech. I trust you won’t object to my advice?

Mutely Penelope shook her head. She knew her aunt would give it anyway, so she reconciled herself to listening.

Mrs. Makepiece relaxed. Penelope saw her shoulders slump a little, and realized her aunt hadn’t been at all sure of her welcome. I know there is an unspoken connection between you and Toby, she said. Penelope loved that expression, and saved it up for future use, while being extremely doubtful about her response. I also know he will make you an offer at some time this visit.

Penelope bridled. Why could her aunt not leave her son to make his own declaration?

Mrs. Makepiece’s next words mollified her ruffled feelings. I fully understand that your answer is none of my business, although I naturally have my opinions on the matter. What I want you to know is that if you should decide not to marry my son, I would still be willing to act as your chaperone until you find a suitable match. You must not let that concern affect your decision.

Mrs. Makepiece’s chaperonage was every bit as strict as her mother’s had been, and it irked Penelope considerably, but she couldn’t help but be touched by her aunt’s sentiments. If Aunt Cecilia left with her son, should Penelope refuse him, then she would have to cast around for a suitable poor relation or else take herself back to her home and remain there until she could find someone to lend her proper countenance. That was not a solution she would have readily accepted.

So, despite her aunt’s constant strictures, Penelope said, Thank you, Aunt Cecilia. That is very good of you. As for any match, I would value your opinion. I haven’t come to any definite conclusions yet, but I know Toby is interested in making a match of it soon.

This wasn’t quite true, but Penelope saw her aunt was chafing to have at it. At the mention of her only son, Mrs. Makepiece smiled, warming her usually stern features. Creases appeared at the corner of her mouth and spread over her dry cheeks. It is the wish of my heart, my dear. I know Toby would make you a good and protective husband, and it would neatly tie the inheritance and the title together. He is a good son, and I wouldn’t insult you by furthering the match if he wasn’t. I hope you know that. Toby is of an age where he is ready to settle down, and you are a dutiful, obedient girl. I think you would make a successful union. You should know that he intends to ask you sometime during this visit, probably after your father’s arrival.

She heard the last comment with a great deal of trepidation. Penelope hated upset, and would rather conform than make anyone unnecessarily angry, although she was quite capable of defending her corner if she needed to.

When she was young, she had chosen her acts of defiance badly and had invariably been forced to concede defeat, teaching her when it was better to concede a point. So now she left her spectacles off in company and kept her hobbies to herself, doing her best to conform to the image of the attractive young society lady. Not to do so might leave her a dried up old maid, never to find a full life and children of her own.

So Penelope chose her battles wisely. I will not keep Toby waiting long, should he ask me and I’m glad you told me of his intentions. But Penelope knew, and from her complacent smile, her aunt knew, too, that if the combined might of Lord Wimbourne, Mrs. Makepiece and Toby Makepiece were set against her, Penelope would feel bound to conform. She had her secret dreams, but they could not form the basis for a successful life. She must put them aside and learn to face reality. It could be a lot worse.

After her aunt had left her, Penelope climbed wearily into bed. The day hadn’t tired her out, but she felt tired. She would soon be an old married woman, no excitement, no adventure. Life wasn’t like that. Not her life, anyway.

Chapter Two

Penelope felt less gloomy in the morning. The day was fine, with a slight breeze to cool the fevered brow, and the prospect from her window, once her maid had thrown back the shutters, was so enticing she decided to take a walk before breakfast. Stopping to tie on a simple straw bergère hat over her curls she escaped before anyone could stop her.

She felt freer out of doors, with the illusion that she could run away from the snares that were creeping their surreptitious threads around her. Soon she would be well and truly caught, probably by Toby and while the thought of marrying him had been tolerable when the wedding was a distant prospect, now it crept closer she wasn’t sure she could accept it with equanimity.

She stopped to sniff a rose, narrowly missing a bee that decided to fly out of it just as she dipped her head. She would have spotted it earlier had she been wearing her spectacles, but someone might be watching from the house. It was foolish to deliberately court censure. But she had her spectacles in her pocket and every intention of wearing them once out of sight of the