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Authors: Alexandra Benedict

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A Forbidden Love

BOOK: A Forbidden Love
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ALEXANDRA BENEDICT

A Forbidden Love

 

Sinfully decadent Anthony Kennington, Viscount Hastings, lives for pleasure -- and he rues the day when he must wed and produce an heir. But he is not a man who runs from danger, and when he chances upon an enchanting gypsy maiden in the woods hounded by bandits, he leaps to her defense. Now, surely, there is but one place for the injured and unconscious lovely to properly recuperate: in his bed.

Sabrina is shocked when she awakens in an opulent bedchamber, nursed in every way by a dashing gentleman. She knows she must leave the haven of Anthony's home at once, even though her life is still in grave danger -- though a different kind of peril awaits her in the viscount's arms. If Sabrina surrenders to this handsome rogue, she will be an outcast. Yet does she dare ignore the future that's written on his palm -- the promise of a shared lifetime of love and ecstasy?

 

For my grandparents: healer and fortune-teller,gendarme and dreamer.Your lives are an inspiration.

 

Prologue

Dover
,
England
1812

T
he winter storm clouds tumbled across the
midnight
sky, masking the moon and stars from view. Only the distant murmur of the thrashing waves guided the cloaked figure toward the sea, where an anchored ship sat veiled in the mist, awaiting its precious cargo: a locket.

Tears streaked the woman’s icy cheeks. She was so close to her sanctuary, within a league’s eye of the blessed sandy shore. But she was also on foot, her steed maimed and killed in the hunt, and with the distant hail of galloping hooves fast approaching, it would not be long before her enemies descended upon her.

She gripped the small ornament in her icy palm. So seemingly insignificant. Yet the secret sealed between the two golden faces wielded enough might to knock a nation to its knees.

Frantic, she vowed if she could not get the locket out of the country, then at least her foes would be denied the peace and comfort afforded by its possession.

Her fingers unfurled. The locket sailed through the whirling winds and landed in a mound of snow. Minutes later, the muffled blast of a pistol brought the chase to a bloody end.

But the locket remained buried under the icy flakes. It was not until a month later, when the last remnants of winter had melted, and crocus and snowdrops poked through the thawing soil, that the glimmering speck of gold arrested the attention of a passing gypsy girl, who, wiping the dirt and grime away, fastened the locket around her neck.

Chapter 1

Sussex
1817

T
he young parlor maid bustled through the corridor, a bundle of white linens tucked firmly in her arms. It was but one of a dozen loads that needed to be washed within the next two days, and new to the estate, she was anxious to please her mistress with the timely deliverance of all the tablewear.

Unbeknownst to her, though, a distant pair of sensuous green eyes were roaming the corridor in search of some mild amusement. Those eyes happened to lock upon the fresh-faced maiden, and their evergreen hue brightened at the piquant sight of the well-rounded, petite form bustling along the passageway.

Lord Anthony Kennington, third Viscount Hastings, couldn’t resist bestowing a suggestive wink and a dashing smile to the lovely young creature. Nor could the parlor maid resist heeding his flirtatious charm, and promptly stuffed her cheeks into her pile of laundry to conceal her blooming blush.

The two passed in silence. It was only when the servant had scurried far enough away that Anthony released the deep chuckle gurgling in his throat.

Meg, was it? Or maybe Mary? Her name eluded him. But she had proven a delightful treat the night before, when he’d found her, all alone, dusting in the study. Since his father spent much of the day shut up in that room, the maid had only the evening hours to tend to any housekeeping duties, and Anthony was much obliged for that shift in routine. His Mary-Meg was certainly merry, and after a few whispered words of amour on his part, they’d found themselves, under the waning candle glow, in a most exquisite position on his father’s large mahogany desk.

Ah, to be in the country again! He must visit his Mary-Meg once more—twice, if time permitted. Such an accommodating, prime little piece was difficult to find within the boundaries of London’s great walls.

Anthony’s boots clicked softly, his greatcoat fluttering about his ankles with each long stride. He reached the sanctum of the parlor and flung open the door.

Lady Ashley Winthrop lowered her knitting needles to her lap and cast her assessing green eyes on the viscount. “And what, pray, do you find so amusing?”

Lush memories of his Mary-Meg, that’s what, though Anthony thrust such mischievous sentiments aside to respond with more prudence, “Why, the sight of you knitting, of course.”

Ashley pursed her lips and his grin only widened at her peevish countenance. He closed the door and approached his twin sister, offering her a kiss on the cheek before he settled in an opposite armchair to meditate on her painstaking stitches.

“Taken up a new pursuit, have you, Ash?”

Her response was to yank at the knotted yarn, prompting the tip of her finger to turn a bright crimson red.

His laughter rumbled throughout the room. “Why don’t you leave the knitting to the spinsters and take a stroll through the grounds? The air will do you good.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Brow wrinkled, she tugged and tugged until at last her finger was free. “I’ve come this far and I intend to finish the pair.”

“The pair?”

She proudly held up two little misshapen boots of rose-colored yarn.

Anthony winced in sympathy for his infant niece, who was the likely recipient of her mother’s valiant efforts. “Aren’t those a little warm for Myra? It’s the middle of April.”

“And I should have the last stitch looped by November,” she vowed with grim determination.

Shaking his head in light amusement, Anthony planted his elbows on the armrests, lacing his fingers together and resting them over his belly. “And where is my baby niece?”

“Out in the garden with her father and elder sister.”

“So it’s safe to assume the entire family has escaped to some refuge on the grounds?”

“All except for Mama and Cecelia, who seek out any commotion in which to immerse themselves.”

Anthony withheld his snort, not the least surprised. He dipped his head back, until his neck nestled comfortably in the one sweeping groove of the ornately carved chair, and closed his eyes. “Well, there’s certainly plenty of commotion. I’ve just come from the west wing and it’s in utter shambles.”

Ashley’s eyes darted from her knitting to her brother. “Dare I ask what your eyes beheld?”

“Only the birth of Chaos herself. Orders were shouted over heads, reaching no one’s ears. Bodies shuffled aimlessly, all appearing to be busy, but none really knowing where they were going or what needed to be done. The grand dining hall alone is in a frightful state.”

“As is the ballroom.”

He peeked inquisitively at his twin through the flaxen fringes of his faintly raised lashes. “And what, pray, is going on in the ballroom?”

“Nothing less than a cosmic feat. I’ve spent all morning overseeing its preparation, only mercifully to be excused by Mama’s closest friend, who insisted on taking charge of the extravaganza herself.”

“And so here you are.”

“And so here I am,” she reiterated with a sigh, fatigued at the mere thought of what she’d nearly undertaken. “It will be a miracle akin to biblical proportions to see this whole tiresome affair come together. Really, Anthony, I don’t remember my début being nearly so exhausting.”

Ashley had celebrated her come-out alone, despite their being twins, for he was not presented at court until after he’d completed his studies at Cambridge. As for their younger sister, Cecelia, the upcoming gala was to be her first formal affair, an introduction of sorts to her fellow peers prior to her official début at St. James’s Palace.

“Your début was equally as exhausting, Ash. You just had a livelier spirit in your youth and a little disorder was always welcomed.”

She crinkled her brow at him. “
We’re
not that old, Anthony.”

Another deep chuckle escaped his lips. “Considering the fact that we’re hiding in a parlor to avoid the commotion of a ball, I’m afraid we are.”

She
humphed
before returning to her knitting. “Well, this celebration is costing Papa a small fortune.”

“I would imagine so. Do you know, I happened upon a cage of doves this morning?”

A startled Ashley soon burst out laughing, holding her hand over her belly. “Surely you jest?”

He teetered his head back and forth in the chair’s groove. “I’m afraid not.”

“Poor Papa,” she empathized. “And poor us. I shall need a holiday after this festivity is over.”

“You should have considered that before volunteering to be Cecelia’s chaperone for the season.”

Her golden brows cambered. “Volunteer? I was ordered to the post by our baby sister, and well you know it. At least Mama is accompanying us to London, so I won’t have to be by Cecelia’s side for every engagement.” She paused her knitting to sigh longingly. “I had hoped to visit Paris this spring.”

“You’d best postpone that hope for the distant future.”

“Yes, well, you’d best postpone any of your future plans, as well. This season will demand all of our attentions, and if I’m not mistaken, Anthony, even you are not deprived of a duty.”

“True indeed,” he grumbled, recalling his obligation to scrutinize his sister’s potential beaux before they progressed on to their father for the final inspection. Anthony had been spared such tedious obligation during Ashley’s hunt for a husband, since he’d been too young to perform the task, but there was no such excuse this time around, and he was not the least bit looking forward to the chore.

His father, not surprisingly, was elated with the forthcoming state of affairs. And not for the obvious reason. As it was Anthony’s responsibility to shift through the sea of unsuitable husbands, Reginald Kennington, the earl of Wenhem, had only to meet the handful of prospective suitors and make his final choice. Avoiding Cecelia’s fustian callers was a joy unto itself, but the aging earl had another cause to be so content, and Anthony knew it. His father was agog at the prospect of heaping more responsibility onto his heir’s shoulders, believing Anthony didn’t have enough of it. And while that may be entirely true, the truant viscount did not appreciate the bestowal of
this
particular chore. Imagine the grueling demands of tending to his pleasures by night and then hightailing it over to the West End to fulfill his brotherly obligation by day. Just when exactly was he to sleep?

“It’ll be a harrowing ordeal to get Cecelia married off,” he repined. “The chit is bound to be finicky. I’ll likely get a list of her husband’s qualifications and have to acquaint myself with each and every credential.”

“Oh, the agonies you shall have to endure!” A raised brow accompanied Ashley’s insincere sympathy. “At least you are spared from attending dozens, if not a hundred, soirées this season.”

Anthony grimaced at the thought. “Don’t even mention such a ghastly fate.”

His sister, at her wits’ ends, finally tossed the knitting needles and yarn aside, and slumped back into her chair. “Would you like some tea?”

He smiled. “I’d love some, thank you.”

Heading for the wheeled serving cart, she poured a cup of the still-steaming refreshment, commenting aloud, “I missed you at breakfast this morning.”

“I couldn’t be bothered with inane chitchat over ballroom décor so early in the day. The vacant grounds were much more agreeable.”

“Hmm.” She handed him the cup and saucer. “In search of amusement, were you?”

Her suggestive tone had him smiling devilishly. “Nothing too wild, I assure you. The woods here are alive with faeries and elves, and the waters filled with playful nymphs. I thought I might ramble about in the hope of meeting one of the mystical creatures.”

Ashley’s staid glare never wavered from her brother as she settled back into her armchair. “And dare I ask if you found any nymphs or faeries?”

“Alas, no.” He sighed with exaggeration. “Not a nymph or faerie was to be seen. A pity, too, for one might, perchance, have cast a spell over me and taken me away from all this madness.”

She flitted her eyes heavenward. “Kindly recall this is Cecelia’s début. It can’t end in a scandalous debacle, so you just avoid any nymphs or fairies or whatever else flutters about in a skirt.”

The twins were close enough that Anthony felt no modesty when posing his next question. “And just what am I to do with my time if not consort with fluttering skirts?”

“Oh, so ennui is the trouble.” She tapped her finger against her cheek, as though deep in thought, before her eyes lit with feigned enthusiasm. “I have the perfect solution—marriage.”

BOOK: A Forbidden Love
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