Read Every Scandalous Secret Online

Authors: Gayle Callen

Tags: #Historical romance, #Fiction

Every Scandalous Secret

BOOK: Every Scandalous Secret
11.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Every Scandalous Secret

Gayle Callen

 

Dedication

 

To Theresa Kovian, longtime Packeteer and good friend. You’ve never given up on your writing, and now have grown in new directions with new challenges. You’ll always have my admiration and respect.

 

Chapter 1

 

Hertfordshire, 1846

 

T
his was not the first time Mr. Leo Wade arrived at a house party without an invitation; however, it was the only time he had arrived anywhere with the intention of catching a spinster.

“I seem to be interrupting,” he said cheerfully, looking about as if intrigued by the identity of the guests arrayed in the Marquess of Bramfield’s elegant, marble-columned drawing room.

But he only cared about Miss Susanna Leland, cousin to the Duke of Madingley, artist, bluestocking, and a spinster by any definition. She was sitting by herself, spectacles flashing a momentary reflection of candlelight. Not his usual quarry, and that was proving most interesting.

Their gazes clashed, and he knew she’d begun to think herself safe from him, that he hadn’t followed her from London. If he expected dismay, he was pleasantly surprised not to receive it. She looked over her spectacles at him, her cool brown eyes briefly narrowed as if he were a peculiar sort of insect. Her unfashionable dark red hair was pulled severely back into a chignon at the base of her neck. No ringlets for Susanna. Her face was almost pretty in a plain sort of way, with cheekbones that would have been dramatic had her mouth not been a bit too wide. Her ordinary gown began at the base of her neck, leaving not a hint of womanly cleavage. Though her figure looked average and not overly endowed, a corset could hide much.

If the painting hanging in his London club was correct, much was certainly hidden.

And he was prepared to discover it all.

Viscount Swanley grinned at him and left the side of his father, Lord Bramfield. Swanley was a tall, gangly, dark-haired man, perpetually cheerful and able to overlook Leo’s many sins, if not participate. They gave a quick nod to each other for etiquette’s sake.

“Good to see you,” Swanley said, then glanced back at his mother. “My lady, did you invite Wade without telling me?”

Lady Bramfield, plump with her settled life, forced a smile from beneath her crown of gray-streaked untamable curls. “I regret to say I did not, but his appearance here surely rectifies my mistake.”

She exchanged a glance with her husband, tall as his heir, Swanley, but rather stooped, as if he spent so much of his time bending over to talk to people that it had become a permanent condition. During their momentary silent communication, Leo waited, confident of the outcome.

“You must stay at our house party,” Swanley said. “There are birds to shoot and pretty girls to watch”—he added the latter in an undertone—“and card games where I’ll certainly best you at last.”

Leo chuckled and resisted the urge to send impassive Susanna a triumphant grin. “As long as watching pretty girls is treated as a sport and not a step toward marriage, then you can count on my companionship.” He shuddered. “I’ve avoided these house parties because they’re usually a veritable marriage mart.”

Swanley laughed. “You have to marry sometime, Wade. Why resist the inevitable, when it can be so pleasant?”

Leo snorted. “My brother has the title and all the duties attending it. I’m in no hurry to join him in marital shackles.” For a moment, memories swamped him of the constant fighting his parents had engaged in, the disdain, the bitterness. Nothing he and his brother and sister tried ever made things better. His brother’s recent marriage still seemed too good to last, so Leo watched it from afar, feeling almost guilty, as if he were awaiting their unhappiness.

Lady Caroline, their host’s daughter, walked to Susanna’s side, towering over the other ladies, her dismay with his presence very evident. She whispered something in Susanna’s ear, and although his quarry nodded, she revealed nothing else. He rather liked the way he couldn’t read her every emotion. Made it more of a challenge.

“You have arrived just in time for dinner,” Swanley was saying.

Leo turned his most humble smile on Lady Bramfield. “I do regret the inconvenience, my lady. Swanley always said I should drop by if I was traveling north from London.”

“I hope we are not keeping you,” Lady Bramfield said quickly, glancing over at the innocent young ladies in her charge.

Though she obviously wished him gone to protect her flock, she couldn’t know that Susanna was not so innocent. “Nothing that cannot wait,” he assured the marchioness.

To her credit, her fixed smile didn’t change.

Several of the younger men moved among the ladies although one chap stood off by himself awkwardly. A mix of gentlemen and nobility, none so highly ranked that they would think themselves too lofty for such a gathering. He wasn’t certain that the mix was ideal, but if these were the eligible men Bramfield wanted his daughter and the other unmarried women to choose from, who was Leo to protest?

“Ignore Greenwich’s frown,” Swanley said in a quiet voice. “He’s a windsucker.”

The earl was frowning at Leo as if in warning, marring his distinguished looks, while his wife, with hair unnaturally dark for her age, whispered animatedly in his ear, her affronted gaze never leaving Leo. Then Leo spotted Lady May, their pretty blond daughter, who fluttered her lashes and her fan at his notice. “Ah yes, she must be the lamb to my wolf, if the earl’s demeanor means anything.”

But Greenwich didn’t need to worry—Leo hadn’t arrived to peruse possible lovers, certainly not among the debutantes. Susanna was his main mission, the subject of a wager he’d proposed with his two closest friends. Recklessness was nothing new for him—desperation was. He’d been feeling bored with a life that had always provided such amusement and excitement. Each day had become almost . . . predictable. Surely a wager against three beautiful women should get him over this strange restlessness that had recently invaded his thoughts.

His arrival necessitated rearranging the procession into dinner, and now that the numbers were uneven, shy Mr. Tyler walked alone at the end.

Susanna, noticing what Leo’s arrival had done to the other man, gave him another disapproving stare. He grinned at her, then held his arm out for Miss Norton, the niece of their host, with sandy hair and a freckled face that blushed prettily when she gaped up at him. Susanna and her escort walked just behind them in line.

There was already a seat for Leo at the table, as if he’d been invited all along, and he proceeded to enjoy dinner. He kept up a lively conversation with many of the guests except Susanna, who spoke calmly to the gentlemen on either side of her.

Leo bided his time, conversing with the men over port and cheroots after dinner, until at last they rejoined the ladies in the drawing room. The older ladies looked up with fondness to their husbands, while the younger ladies betrayed a bit too much eagerness.

Leo walked purposefully toward Susanna. He felt the change in the air, the way people tried not to watch his progress across the room. He could tell by the set of her shoulders that Susanna felt their stares, but she turned away to talk to one of the young ladies at her side—Miss Randolph? He thought he remembered the way Miss Randolph spoke in a half-whispering voice that betrayed her zeal.

When he stopped in front of Susanna, she raised an eyebrow as if she couldn’t fathom why he’d approached her. The minx.

He hadn’t imagined he could enjoy himself as much as he had five days ago, when he’d seen her dressed as a boy, but tonight was almost proving its equal in entertainment.

“Miss Leland,” he said, bowing to her.

Her curtsy was fluidly feminine. “Mr. Wade.”

“Would you do me the honor of taking a turn about the room?”

She gave him a polite smile, and when she would have simply walked at his side, he held up his arm, forcing her to touch him—to confront the reality of the situation from which she’d tried to flee.

People continued to converse as they moved away together, but he knew it was all speculation about why he’d chosen to bestow his attentions on spinster Susanna rather than debutante beauty Miss Randolph. The girl’s parents were the only couple who watched him with naïve interest. The others would soon set them straight.

Susanna’s hand was featherlight on his arm. They walked before the long expanse of French windows looking out onto the dark terrace. No one could overhear them now.

“It was rather easy to find you,” Leo said softly.

She regarded him calmly, her face half-lit with the lamps of the room, the other half in the shadows of the night.

He continued, “Your maids were quite eager to help an eligible gentleman who was so distraught over missing you.” He patted her hand before she could speak. “Do not be displeased with them. I am persuasive.”

“Really?” she inquired, one eyebrow lifting. “It remains to be seen if that extends beyond innocent maids.”

“I am eager, too. Surely you could tell by the way I followed you into Hyde Park.”

“You could have simply called on me rather than skulking in wait to accost me in public.”

“Far more difficult for you to reject me.”

“But reject you I did,” she said brightly. “I was sketching.”

“And you have quite the skill for it.” He smiled down at her, even as he effortlessly guided her through a turn and started back along the length of the windows.

“Flattery, Mr. Wade? I do believe that is beneath you where a wager is concerned.”

“And so is ‘skulking’ after you, but it served my purpose. It maneuvered you to this house party, away from the protection of your family, didn’t it?”

If she was startled, she hid it well, keeping a pleasant expression on her face.

“Did you think it was all
your
idea to flee London?” he continued.

“I did not flee; I accepted a long-standing invitation to attend this house party. Unlike you,” she added dryly, “who rudely appeared without invitation.”

“I, too, had a long-standing
personal
invitation—luckily for me.” He grinned, but although she looked faintly amused, she did not return his smile. Most young ladies would have, his charm being what it was, but Susanna was unlike his usual quarry.

“And so what do you intend to do?” she asked, her curiosity out in the open.

“If I told you, I would lose the advantage.”

“You have no advantage, Mr. Wade. You are trying to gather proof to win a scandalous wager. Of course, I will not be helping you.”

“Of course not—that would defeat the purpose. You can’t even bring yourself to speak aloud what occurred that night. I believe there was a painting, and you were—”

“Please be quiet.” She directed a pleasant, distracting smile at other guests. “I don’t talk about it because I do not wish to be overheard. Gossip spreads far too easily.”

“Then prepare yourself for many secret discussions, Susanna, for although I’m competing with two of my friends”—he lowered his voice to a husky timbre—“I am also competing with you.”

He bit off the last word as Lord and Lady Greenwich strode by, their lined, patrician faces identically disapproving, their glances at Susanna full of sympathy and poorly veiled curiosity. He knew he’d practically cultivated such treatment, but to his surprise, it didn’t make Susanna distance herself from him.

When the couple was far enough away, Susanna said, “I do not care to compete with you, Mr. Wade.”

“That is obvious by the way you fled London.”

She looked at him with the toleration of an adult to an incorrigible child. “Believe what you wish. It only goes to prove your arrogance.”

“You’re not the only one who fled, of course.” When she remained silent, he continued, “Your sister Rebecca mysteriously decided to visit an elderly relative.”

“No mystery there, sir. Our great-aunt Rianette is doing poorly. Rebecca is visiting, as is her duty.”

“While you enjoy a frivolous party.”

“If you knew anything about me, Mr. Wade, you would know that ‘enjoy’ is an erroneous word.”

He studied her with curiosity. Ladies of the
ton
lived for these sorts of social events—but then again, Susanna was not proving herself a typical lady. “Fear not for your sister’s welfare. She is certainly not alone. I am quite positive that Julian followed her.”

Susanna blinked at him. “I do not believe that. The Earl of Parkhurst is far too busy to . . .” She trailed off, once again unwilling to say the words.

He was never unwilling to be reckless. “To win a wager over—”

She pinched his arm, and he chuckled.

“We’ll have to discuss the details sometime, but I can be patient,” he said. “As I was saying, Julian entered this
unnamed
wager freely enough—which did surprise me, I’ll admit. He’s not known for the same frivolity I am.”

He thought the corners of her mouth twitched, but he couldn’t tell if she betrayed amusement or impatience.

“But then you knew that,” Leo continued.

“I beg your pardon? I barely know either you or Lord Parkhurst—except by reputation.”

He deliberately winced. “A salvo fired in my direction. But not a direct hit. You assumed that by the three of you going your separate ways, we gentlemen could not marshal our resources against you.”

BOOK: Every Scandalous Secret
11.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Paleo Diet by Cordain, Loren
Atm by Walter Knight
The Shining Ones by David Eddings
The Ministry of SUITs by Paul Gamble
My Sunshine by Catherine Anderson
Santa Wore Combat Boots by Barbara Witek