Tantalizing Secrets by Lynne Connolly by Lynne Connolly - Read Online

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Tantalizing Secrets - Lynne Connolly

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Secrets

Secrets Trilogy, Book 3

A murder... A lord's desire...and her quiet, respectable life is gone forever. Arabella Mason is too busy investigating her brother-in-law's accidental death to entertain thoughts of love. She'll go to any lengths to ease her sister's grief, even accept the help of the distressingly attractive Viscount Bredon, Peter Worsley. Instead of answers, the trail of clues only leads to more questions. Who was her brother-in-law, really...and why does Peter, who poses as her brother in public, make mincemeat of her resistance in private? A successful politician and confirmed bachelor, Peter has bedded the loveliest women in society. He never imagined he'd wind up in a Leicester backwater, helping a pretty widow investigate his brother's untimely death. As his suspicions of foul play grow stronger, the danger rises-and so does his desire for Arabella. One kiss, and she snatches away all his resolve, leaving him wondering which he wants more... To find his brother's killer? Or keep Arabella safe-and make her his?

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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.

Tantalizing 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, fellow traveler and friend.

Chapter One

Arabella Mason trudged up the long drive leading to Ulverscroft Manor. It hadn’t seemed such a long walk when she’d first begun it, but the house was so large it had appeared closer to the end of the drive when she started out. She kept her attention fixed on it, ignoring her weariness. The great towers on either side of the impressive façade showed an expanse of windows glittering coldly in the weak October sunshine. The gray exterior lowered balefully, an extension of the gray autumn sky above it. As if some celestial architect had wanted to create a completely gray landscape. Even the green grass looked washed out, a result of the heavy cloud cover, threatening rain before nightfall. Or before she reached the house.

Arabella was so engrossed in the great building before her she didn’t see the silent watcher until she cannoned into him. Bouncing off a definitely male torso, she gave a little scream. His arms went around her to stop her from falling. Instead of releasing her, he studied her. Arabella found herself gazing up into a pair of eyes so dark they were almost black. It was impossible for her to read their expression, but the finely wrought mouth quirked up at the corners so it was a fair wager that the gentleman was amused rather than put out. And this was a gentleman. Plainly dressed, but the cut of his country coat and the fine wool fabric proclaimed its expense.

His voice, deeply amused, reached her stunned senses. Nothing for miles and you managed not to see me? I only know one other female who could have done that. Can it be that you need spectacles, dear lady?

Not at all sure she liked being addressed in such a way, Arabella snapped, Of course not! I’ve never visited Ulverscroft House before and its size took me aback. The gentleman must have stepped out of the looming shade of one of the great lime trees that bordered the drive. Unsporting of him not to announce his presence to her. She wondered how long he’d watched her before stepping into her path.

He kept all his attention on her. Yes, the sheer size of the place does sometimes surprise the unwary visitor. A very arrogant Elizabethan built it. Whose descendant, by the way, is currently in residence, so if you were hoping this was a Public Day, you are sadly mistaken. His gaze slipped past her face to the body below it, However if you wish, I’m sure I can manage a private tour. Just for you. His eyes glinted with wicked promise.

Arabella shook herself, but it only served to make him settle his grip more firmly about her waist. I have business with the earl or perhaps his chief steward.

You interest me. His voice slid over her skin like velvet.

Before Arabella realized what he was about to do, he dropped a quick, hard kiss on her mouth and released her before she could protest. "I beg your pardon, ma’am. I suppose a gentleman might have resisted, but I’m not always a gentleman and you are very hard to resist."

Arabella should have been outraged at his effrontery but she satisfied herself with shaking out the folds of her best green cloak like a ruffled pigeon. It wasn’t every day she bearded an earl in his den, and she had dressed for courage and self-confidence. Now this man had shaken it.

She took the chance to take in his appearance. The hair tied back in a neat queue under the cocked hat was as dark as his eyes. The mouth that had briefly touched hers was finely delineated, and full of sin. Arabella wagered it had known many female caresses. He stood with a careless confidence that showed him as much the gentleman as his well cut country coat and breeches, and the gleaming black boots caressing his calves.

Arabella was too honest to deny that she found him attractive, but she was still ruffled and unsure. I am, however, a respectable woman.

I’m afraid I’m not a very respectable man. He swept off his hat and bowed to her, making an elegant job of it. He must be a member of the family or a high-ranking servant. She waited, one eyebrow lifted, for his explanation. His rueful laugh told her she was going to get it. Peter Worsley, at your service, ma’am. May I enquire the nature of your business with my father?

She bobbed a curtsey, aware of her lack of elegance. "Arabella Mason, sir. Mrs. Arabella Mason. He didn’t seem in the least put out by her emphasis on the Mrs. I think his lordship should know my news. I’m sorry, but it concerns his land steward."

Tulling? Mr. Worsley frowned. What has he done?

No, sir, not Tulling. Mr. Lewis Worth.

The frown deepened. We’ve never had a steward by that name, I’d swear to it. He stared at her, and then seemed to make a decision and held his arm out for her to take. Come with me. Arabella placed her hand on it.

He led her to the broad front steps and through the front door, which was thrown open at their approach.

The interior wasn’t what Arabella would call welcoming. The great doors led into a huge hall, its timbered roof far above their heads, the heads of long dead game animals mounted for display. Arabella couldn’t repress a shudder.

Yes, she heard him say sympathetically. They have to burn several trees to make a difference to this room in the winter.

He urged her forward, towards a door at the back of the hall. Arabella planted both feet firmly on the marble floor. When he looked around, fine-drawn brows lifted in expectation, she lifted her hands to her bonnet strings.

A footman materialized at her elbow, correctly reading her desire. Mr. Worsley grinned and removed his hat and gloves, tossing them to the man. Arabella took her time removing her bonnet, cloak and gloves. It gave her time to compose herself. She needed it. It had taken a great deal of courage for her to travel here today, and now she felt her tension rise at the prospect of what lay ahead.

Arabella shook out the skirts of her modest blue wool gown. She’d always been proud of this gown, but suddenly it seemed plain in this magnificent setting. When she turned to Mr. Worsley, he was watching her with a slight smile. She felt sure he was laughing at her.

Arabella put her chin up defiantly and stared back, provoking him into genuine laughter. Enchanting!

She wasn’t sure she liked it, but it sent a thrill of awareness right up her spine.

Mr. Worsley led her to a door at the back of the hall, which a footman hurried over to throw open. Worsley threw him an irritated glance and Arabella wondered if the inhabitants of this house walked into doors if they weren’t opened for them. Passing through a couple of smaller but no more hospitable rooms they turned and then the décor changed. This is the family wing, he said.

Although the corridor held some very grand items, they weren’t as daunting as they were in the rooms they’d just left. The public don’t usually get to see this part.

Am I the public? she queried acidly.

He smiled. No, I don’t believe you are.

Nearly at the end of a corridor, another door was thrown open and Mr. Worsley led Arabella through.

Two people occupied the room. The gentleman had one foot propped up on a substantial footstool, and a dark-haired lady sat on a small sofa close to him, engaged in embroidery, which she put down when they came in.

Mother, this is Mrs. Arabella Mason, who wishes to see us on a matter of business.

Arabella made a creditable curtsey to the countess who graciously inclined her head then turned a quizzical look on to her son. Arabella felt awed, but far from cowed. She began on her prepared speech, sticking rigidly to what she had rehearsed all the way here.

I’m sorry to disturb you but I was told to come here if anything happened. The matter concerns one of your servants, a Mr. Lewis Worth. He said he was your land steward.

The earl gave his son a questioning glance. Mr. Worsley shrugged. I suggest we hear the lady out. Meanwhile, may I ask her to sit?

The countess graciously gave permission and Mr. Worsley saw Arabella seated on a comfortable sofa before taking his place by her side. Somehow, his presence gave her some courage because he didn’t seem half as lofty as the rest of his family. She had the feeling she could talk to him and he’d listen.

Arabella took a deep breath. Mr. Worth married my sister five years ago. They have a son. On Saturday last, Mr. Worth fell from the top of the tower of St. Margaret’s Church in Leicester. He was killed. She paused and clenched her fist in her lap until her knuckles turned white. It hadn’t been pleasant to imagine that. My cousin was with him but he could not prevent the tragedy. My sister is distraught, so I agreed to come on her behalf. She fought the trembling of her chin when she thought of that day.

The earl spoke. While we commiserate with you in your loss we fail to see what business this is of ours. We have never had a steward or any other upper servant by the name of Worth, of that I am sure. I think you are mistaken.

She knew she was not. Perhaps Lewis wasn’t as senior as he made out, but in that case, he couldn’t have afforded the house and the comforts he provided for his wife. Indeed I beg your pardon if that is the case, but he gave me a letter he asked that I give you personally. She reached into her pocket and drew out a sealed note. Mr. Worsley got to his feet and handed it to his father.

Arabella wondered if they would offer her some tea, and assumed it would only be in the kitchen with the housekeeper. She didn’t much care where, as long as she got some soon. She’d come a long way and nervousness had made her mouth dry.

An oath from the earl shattered her musings.

Father? All Mr. Worsley’s attention was riveted on the earl. What is it?

The earl had paled, his ruddy complexion overcast. Look! He brandished the paper.

Mr. Worsley strode across the distance between them and twitched the paper from his father’s fingers. He studied it and then looked up sharply. This is Gerald’s writing. Would you mind, ma’am, telling us what your late brother-in-law looked like?

Everyone in the room stared at her. Arabella felt distinctly uncomfortable, but she did her best. He was a tall gentleman. With an effort, she kept the quaver out of her voice. His hair was naturally light brown, but he wore it short with a wig over it. His figure was good. She paused, conjuring a picture of Lewis to draw on. He said he was a land steward here and often spent time away from home. He spoke very well and once said he went to Eton.

Mr. Worsley regarded her solemnly. What color were his eyes?

Bright green. Piercingly so. Oh yes, and a small scar above his left eyebrow. Gained, he said, in a childhood altercation with his brother. Mr. Worsley stood completely still, his eyes wide, staring at her.

Oh God! The countess showed the first indication of emotion, putting her hand to her mouth. She swiftly controlled herself, and she folded her hands in her silken lap over her fan. How old was he?

He said he was five and thirty.

The countess dropped her embroidery and stared at Arabella, her eyes wide.

Stunned by the dramatic reaction, Arabella didn’t know what to say or do. When she ventured to look up, she saw the earl’s dark eyes fixed on her. I’m sorry. If I’d known how much Mr. Worth meant to you I wouldn’t have broken the news so precipitately.

The earl stared at her, his eyes hollow and emotionless. It very much seems, he told her, in an unsteady voice, that the man you knew as Mr. Worth was in fact my oldest son Gerald, Lord Bredon.

Chapter Two

Arabella’s face must have reflected her shock; she remembered to close her mouth but stared helplessly at his lordship. All of a sudden, she wanted to stand up and run away from this house and the complications she had unwittingly brought upon it. But this complicated her life too. So my sister is a countess?

No. Mr. Worsley moved to her side. Not unless he married her again recently. Until two years ago, Gerald was married. He married her ten years ago. His wife died of a sudden fever.

And Lewis had married her sister five years ago. So the marriage was bigamous.

I’m sorry. Mr. Worsley spoke gently. This must be confusing for you. Please, let me help you to a seat. Numbly, she allowed him to help her sit on a sofa and then he sat down himself.

Arabella nodded. My sister. We thought she was a respectable widow.

Mr. Worsley grimaced. Typical of Gerald to leave us in that way.

Worsley!

He raised a brow at his mother’s sharp tone. I prefer to be honest. We need to discuss this without any bark on it if we’re to clear things up. If you are too distressed, Mother, I suggest you retire. His tone was mild, but Arabella heard a wealth of meaning in it. He didn’t expect his mother to retire, and he was right.

Mrs. Mason, my brother Gerald was a wastrel and a libertine. He didn’t respond to his father’s snort. I have that reputation, but I do try to be of some use to my fellow man. I’m a politician.

Arabella was more successful in suppressing her snort. She wondered if there was another brother between Gerald and this one. If not, she was looking at the new Lord Bredon. He would not be able to retain his seat in the Commons once he inherited the earldom. She wondered how he would feel about that. He showed nothing but proper concern now. Gerald has been significantly absent from the family, especially in the last few years. Now we know why.

Arabella concentrated her whole being on keeping her wits about her, so afraid of appearing even more foolish than she must seem already. He said he was a land steward for several families which is why he spent quite a lot of time away from home.

May we know a little about you and your sister, Mrs. Mason? His tone was gentle, but Arabella knew he would find out if she didn’t tell him. He had remarkably perceptive eyes, and while looks could often be deceptive, Arabella felt that in this case she was right.

We come from an old established Leicestershire family. I married ten years ago, and my sister five. She glanced at the earl, but he was leaning back in his chair, his sharp eyes fixed on her face. Arabella swallowed down her fear. I married a man considerably older than I am, but we had a good marriage. I’ve been a widow for three years now. My husband was a button manufacturer.

Mr. Worsley’s lips twitched. She could swear he was suppressing a smile. For some reason, that sent a spurt of indignation through her and with it came confidence. That is, he owned the premises and the business. We lived in a comfortable manor house just outside the city. I still live there, but now his heir lives there too. Only until he can find somewhere else suitable to live. The house is mine. She worked very hard at keeping the pride out of her voice, but she saw a gleam in the depths of those dark eyes. He had seen it. We have one brother, who is presently—abroad and younger siblings at home. I think that is all.

How did your sister meet Gerald?

Arabella thought back. At the public assembly rooms in the town. We had never seen him before, and he explained he was only recently made steward here. He married my sister in months. Despite her efforts at self-control, her face twisted with sorrow. She gave herself time to regain her equilibrium before she went on. My father married them. He is a clergyman. I’m glad he’s not here to see her disgrace, but we will have to tell him. She braced herself for her next piece of news. Lewis and Caroline—they have a son.

Stunned silence fell over the room. Arabella didn’t break it.

But the marriage was bigamous. His mother sounded numb. That didn’t surprise Arabella. The next thought did. Could her sister be a viscountess? She remembered a few incidents. You said the viscountess died two years ago? Peter nodded. My sister’s son is barely two.

The earl drew a deep breath. It’s possible.

Barely. Mr. Worsley sounded somehow lighter. Arabella groped for reasons. If Lewis was Gerald, as seemed likely, and if Gerald was dead, that made Peter Worsley the new Viscount Bredon. He got to his feet and strode around the room, the full skirts of his frock coat swirling around him. If, by some miracle, he remarried before the child was born, that would make the boy legitimate.

Caroline a viscountess? Arabella had no doubt her sister would make an excellent one. But there were two big ifs involved.

Mrs. Mason, has the funeral been held? Mr. Worsley stood before her, staring down at her face.

It’s set for the day after tomorrow at ten.

I see. Mr. Worsley hesitated. Is he recognizable? He ignored his mother’s half-suppressed cry.

Arabella swallowed. Yes. He fell on his back. His face is unmarked. I identified him. She would never forget that waxen face with the glassy eyes. A tear escaped before she could blink it back. She’d liked Lewis. He was laughing and carefree, and he’d brought much needed levity into their lives. No more.

I should go to the funeral, Mr. Worsley said.

He should be brought here. This is where he belongs. The earl’s sounded determined.

If it is indeed Gerald. I don’t have to announce who I am, sir. I can pose as an old friend of his. Then, if it is Gerald, at least one of his family will be there.

Then what?

Peter put his hand to his chin, then dropped it again. Arabella watched the slender fingers curl in his lap. I need to discover if he married Mrs. Mason’s sister again after Charlotte died. If he did not, then it’s better to let things lie. Let his neighbors think Lewis existed. Here, we can go into mourning for him properly, but put out that he was abroad and lost at sea. That would explain the lack of a funeral.

Abroad? echoed his lordship.

Mr. Worsley shrugged. We say that you sent him to look at our Irish properties. He was caught in a storm on the way home. Mr. Worth will be buried in Leicester.

Could we say there was a marriage, even if there wasn’t one? His mother sounded hopeful.

No. Mr. Worsley and his father spoke together, then Mr. Worsley continued alone. Despite my profession, I try to be honest. With deception like that, we’d be waiting all our lives for someone to discover it. If there was a remarriage and the boy was born after it, then we will bring the boy and his mother here. If not, we will cope.

He fixed his mother with a basilisk stare. If we do anything else we’ll find scandal on our doorstep. For us and for Mrs. Mason’s family.

The silence in the room was deafening. Arabella felt uncomfortable and unhappy, as though she had no right to be there, and when she met the accusatory stare of the countess, she knew why. There was a woman who had loved her son. She was glad she had no children, so she could never feel that way. Before, her childlessness had been a source of sorrow. Now she was glad of it.

Eventually the earl gave a great sigh. You’re right. Which church is he to be buried in, ma’am?

St. Margaret’s. Despite her training in proper behavior, Arabella found herself drooping. She pulled herself together with a jerk.

The perceptive Mr. Worsley noticed her weariness. Mrs. Mason had better stay the night. We’ll travel to Leicester in the morning.

Arabella tried to look bright. I have a room booked at the inn in the village. My luggage is there.

Mr. Worsley grinned, then quickly suppressed it and Arabella felt the hot blood rush to her cheeks when she remembered the circumstances of their first meeting. I wondered. We’ll send someone for them. You must stay here.

Of course, Lady Ulverscroft said with an effort. We dine at four.

I have nothing suitable—

Mr. Worsley interrupted her. "I’m sure we can find you something." He sent his mother a quelling glance that Arabella didn’t miss.

He stood up. May I give you a guided tour of the house and show you your room?

The yellow bedroom is ready, his mother said grudgingly.

Correctly interpreting his motives, Arabella stood and curtseyed to the earl and countess. They acknowledged her with regal nods, stony faced. She was only too glad to leave the room.

Mr. Worsley took her back along the corridor to the older part of the house, and through to what looked very much like a cloister, though the open side was bricked-in, and it now formed a passage. At the end, he opened a door and took her into a small wood-paneled room. I hope you don’t mind, but we have matters to discuss. We have guests staying, and we won’t have much privacy once the dinner ritual starts.

Arabella felt as if she’d stepped into a dream. A nightmare. It’s difficult to understand. Why would Lord Bredon do this? Pretend to be someone else?

Mr. Worsley frowned, and stared at the crisp linenfold paneling, before he looked back at her, his dark gaze frank. Five years ago, Gerald changed. Became more settled, and the constant parade of women stopped. My father thought it a sign of late maturity, but the change came so suddenly, I knew there had to be something else.

Five years.

I asked him and he told me he’d found the love of his life. He didn’t tell me her name, or where she lived, but he said he’d set her up as best he could. That must have been your sister. He turned back and the frank honesty in his eyes astounded Arabella. So I thank you for that. I loved Gerald, despite his ways; there was no malice in him. He paused, frowning. "Your sister must