Authors: Kaitlin O’Riley
As Vivienne attempted to break away from Aidan's grasp, the sound of voices entering the other end of the long gallery caused them both to freeze.
In horrified alarm, they stared at each other, aware of their scandalous position. Before she could protest, Aidan placed his hand over her mouth and dragged her through the nearest doorway. It was dark inside. This was the last place she should be.
Alone in the dark with Aidan Kavanaugh.
The length of his strong, muscled body leaned against hers and the intense heat between them radiated through the many layers of their clothing. His warm breath on the back of her neck sent a shiver to the core of her body.
His thumb actually caressed her cheek, tracing a gentle path back and forth along her cheekbone, while the hand at her waist was stroking the curve of her hip, oh so faintly. He barely touched her, yet she felt his contact throughout her entire being. And shivered.
Suddenly, he used both hands to spin her around to face him, although she could barely distinguish his features in the darkness. She gasped as his mouth came down on hers. Fiercely. But she welcomed him with an eagerness that matched his own. They kissed with a desperate hunger, as if all that time had never passed. As if this were their last chance to ever kiss again. It was reckless, crazy. It was heaven.
It was Aidan kissing her.
And that was all that matteredâ¦
Books By Kaitlin O'Riley
SECRETS OF A DUCHESS
ONE SINFUL NIGHT
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Kensington Publishing Corp.
For Grandma Aggie
And for my mother, as always
I want to thank my wonderful agents, Jane and Miriam, for taking a chance on me and for their unerring advice, and my editor, John, for loving what I write.
I happen to be blessed with the most incredible family and amazing friends who have helped me immeasurably in one way or another along my writing journey. From inspiration and encouragement to technical support and business advice to simply making me laugh, I could not have accomplished anything without all of you. I give much love and deepest gratitude to Jennifer, Greg, Janet, Scott, Maureen, Richard, Bob, Adrienne, Billy, and my father, John. The same thank you applies to Danny, Lynn, Mark, John, Jeff, Brian, Cela, Albert, Kim, and Eric. I also thank Yvonne, my best friend for over thirty years and the bravest woman I know, for her unfailing faith in me. (And for wanting to read every rough draft.)
Above all, I thank my sister Jane, my partner in romance novel crime, for her invaluable critiques, insight, and support, and for not letting me forget that good things are possible.
Note to Riley: You are the best little boy in the world.
“Come and meet my cousin now,” Gregory Cardwell said eagerly.
“You mean the pretty one?” Aidan Kavanaugh, the Earl of Whitlock, asked with slight skepticism, fresh drink in hand.
For the last few minutes Gregory had been extolling the heavenly attributes of his newfound cousin. Truth be told, Aidan had only been half-listening to his garrulous friend, although the point that Gregory was describing an unusually attractive person had penetrated his preoccupied mind.
“All my cousins are pretty, my fine friend,” Gregory explained with an unabashed grin, his merry eyes twinkling. “We're a handsome family.”
It was a true enough statement, for Gregory was an attractive man despite his ruddy complexion and many freckles. Since their days at Cambridge years ago, he and Aidan had been good friends.
“You know I was speaking of your meeting my most beautiful cousin. But I must warn you, Aidan. She may just tempt you away from the fair Helene.” Gregory raised and lowered his eyebrows in a devilish manner.
Aidan gave him a doubtful look as they made their way through Bingham Hall's massive ballroom, where sophisticated and fashionably dressed people swarmed about. A full orchestra played at one end of the elaborately decorated ballroom and couples danced in the center. The Duchess of Bingham's invitations were always extremely popular and highly coveted, for she was renowned for her lavish and extravagant entertaining. Her informal style and manner were often imitated but never matched, for no one could host a party quite like the Duchess of Bingham and her house parties, like this one, were particular favorites. Tonight was the Welcome Ball to commence the weeklong round of lively and engaging activities for the fortunate guests who were extended an invitation.
As he and Gregory pressed through the crowd, Aidan ignored the heads that turned in his direction, the majority of which were of the female persuasion. As one of the most eligible bachelors in England, he was used to women flirting with him and fawning over him. In fact, he would be surprised if women did not look his way, but he paid no attention to them. He idly wondered where Helene was and knew he would have to seek her out sooner rather than later.
A decision about Helene Winston was one that Aidan needed to make in the near future. He probably should just propose to her and be done with it. She expected it by now, and perhaps even deserved it, but she was too much of a lady to ever pressure him about it. Somehow he could not bring himself to take that final step and ask her to marry him. Oh, Helene was desirable enough for a wife. He did not know why he held off on this, much to his mother's dismay and, he presumed, Helene's.
He truly did not even wish to be at this house party in the first place.
More than a little worried about his shipping business, Aidan recalled the dreadful week that passed. After one of his largest shipments ever of cotton from America was mysteriously lost, there had been a disastrous fire at his shipping warehouse two nights ago. The double financial blow of missing an entire cotton shipment in addition to losing a large warehouse filled to the brim with merchandise was almost ruinous, but fortunately not one of his employees had been injured in the terrible, late-night blaze. For that Aidan was most thankful. He had spent years building his shipping company up from nothing, devoting himself to making it a success. He was not about to let it go up in smoke.
Yet he had his suspicions that the fire was not accidental. There had been too many “accidents” lately, and the events of the past week were clearly deliberate.
And he had a fairly good idea of who was responsible for it. Proving it would be a most challenging enterprise, however. He would rather have stayed in London to manage these matters personally, but he had made a promise to his mother, as well as Helene, that he would attend the Binghams' party, and he could not break it. He had finally arrived at the estate, although rather later than expected. His mother had not been pleased by his delayed appearance but, then again, she rarely was pleased by anything.
His mother's wishes were not easily thwarted; she had wrangled this particular promise out of him when he had been overly distracted with work and afterward he had seen no decent way out of it. If it had not been for the mysterious fire the night before last, he actually might have enjoyed a week of relaxation in the country: going for long walks, riding and hunting. Lord knew he needed to clear his head. However, he was too anxious about the cause of the fire to relax now.
Clearly not in the mood for the evening's unavoidable social obligations, he took another sip of the excellent whiskey in his glass and followed his friend around the crowded and noisy perimeter of the dance floor, nodding briefly in greeting to the many faces who recognized him.
Then Gregory stepped aside, nudging Aidan lightly with his elbow and whispering to him in a low tone, “There she is.”
As Aidan glanced ahead, he stopped short, almost spilling his drink down the front of his expensive, finely cut evening jacket.
There, on the arm of Gregory Cardwell's identical twin brother George, was a woman of incredible beauty.
He stared as she gracefully turned her head and laughed at something George said to her, the sound of her laughter rich and warm. Her luminous smile lit up her exquisite face, which would melt the heart of any man looking at her, includingâobviouslyâGeorge Cardwell's. But then, how could a heart not melt?
Silky black hair framed a face flawless and delicate in its bone structure. Her deep blue eyes were fringed by long, dark lashes with graceful brows arching lightly above them. She had a small, straight nose with high cheekbones in a slightly heart-shaped face with a creamy complexion. Full, sensual lips smiled charmingly to reveal pearly white teeth. As he watched her, the breath in his chest constricted and his heart pounded forcefully.
He could not move.
Suddenly Aidan was hundreds of miles away. Rolling green hills spread before him, covered in a soft gray mist. The waves of a wild surf crashed on the shore below high, windswept cliffs. The fresh scent of the sea saturated him. Heated kisses and sweet words; hands clasped and promises made. He could feel his heart pounding and his gut clenched.
He knew this woman.
No one else could have that face. That hauntingly beautiful face.
It couldn't be anyone other than Vivienne Montgomery.
He could tell by the elegant curve of her neck. The graceful way she held herself. The ivory white skin that beckoned to be touched. The sultry sapphire eyes that sparkled and teased. The black hair that would fall in long, silky waves to her waist. He knew, for he had seen her wear it that way. God, he had run his fingers through it! Now those glossy tresses were piled fashionably around her head in sophisticated ringlets. The pale blue gown she wore covered perfectly rounded breasts that gave way to the slender waist of a petite body.
Desire coursed through his blood at the sight of her, although he fought against it. Anger surged through him next. White-hot anger.
What in hell is Vivienne Montgomery doing in England?
Gregory pulled Aidan closer and said in a low, satisfied voice, “As you can see for yourself, I did not exaggerate her beauty. You can close your mouth now.”
At his friend's words, Aidan mentally shook himself and closed his mouth, unaware that he had been gaping like a callow school boy.
The enormity of the situation hit him.
Vivienne Montgomery is Gregory Cardwell's cousin!
“Vivvy, dearest, this is my good friend, Aidan Kavanaugh, the Earl of Whitlock,” Gregory introduced them easily. “Aidan, may I present my beautiful cousin, Miss Vivienne Montgomery.”
He stepped forward woodenly to greet the only woman who had ever turned his world upside down. She stood there composed and serene, looking for all the world like she had never laid eyes on him before. There was no air of recognition about her. Did she not remember him? Was she going to ignore him? How could she possibly have forgotten what had happened between them? So many years had passed, but not a day went by that he did not think of her, however unwillingly.
Vivienne's sapphire-blue eyes were looking up at him from beneath her long sooty lashes. Aidan's heart almost stopped beating completely. She had become more breathtakingly beautiful than he remembered. Even in his dreams. Perhaps dreams were not an accurate description. Tortured nightmares was the more precise term for the images that endlessly haunted him in his sleep.
He simply stared at her, not oblivious to the watershed of emotions that were crashing through him at the sight of her before him. He had never thought to see her again. Yet here she was, in the flesh and more beautiful than ever.
“Vivienne has just come to live with us,” Gregory had gone on to say in his usual blithe manner, unaware of the stilted silence between Aidan and his cousin.
Aidan cleared his throat. “Miss Montgomery and I have already met.”
The surprised expressions of the others were not lost on Aidan as he waited for Vivienne's response to him. Had she wanted to pretend they did not know each other? That they had never met? Well, he was not going to let that happen.
“Has it been ten years already, Aidan?” she asked softly.
The subtle brogue in her voice was one that Aidan recognized instantly and again it pulled him back to another time and place. He felt himself immersed in emotions he had long since buried of a time he most definitely did not wish to recall. Their eyes locked and, for a moment, it was as if they were the only two people in the room.
“Time has done nothing to change you, I see,” he answered.
“I've changed more than you know,” she responded gently, although there was a wealth of meaning in that comment just for him.
“I doubt that.” Aidan's words were like ice.
“How in the world do you two know each other?” Gregory asked, a curious expression on his boyish face.
“Galway.” Aidan and Vivienne stated in unison, surprising each other.
“I knew you spent time in Ireland when you were a boy, Aidan, but I had no idea you were in the same town as my cousin!” Gregory exclaimed in amusement.
“What a remarkable coincidence that you two should meet again!” George Cardwell chimed in. “You knew each other as children?”
“You could say that,” Vivienne retorted calmly, although her little barb was lost on the others. It was meant for Aidan alone.
It puzzled him that she could remain unruffled by his presence. How could she be so composed when he was overwhelmed with emotion at seeing her again? His jaw clenched as he stared at her. Now that he really looked he noticed a family resemblance between Vivienne and the Cardwell twins in their eyes. But while the twins' eyes were light blue, Vivienne's were a tumultuous sea-blue, constantly changing to match her moods.
“Tell us, Aidan, what was our cousin like as a little girl? We've only just met her for the first time,” Gregory said, always wanting to know more than he should.
Aidan watched as Vivienne glanced up at him, meeting his eyes directly. For the briefest instant he pictured Vivienne the day he first met her. Lord, but she was pretty even back then, all dark hair and impish smiles, with the constant hint of laughter in her fascinating eyes. A vivid image of the last time he saw her immediately took its place and his stomach tightened in reflex. “I'm sure she has not changed at all.”
Vivienne's expression hardened at that remark. “People rarely change their characters, although they may try to change their outward appearances to make it seem as though they have changed.”
“Surely you must have a lot to catch up on,” George offered with a grin that matched his brother's.
Aidan watched the briefest shadow flash across her face. “I don't believe there is anything we need to catch up on. Is there, Miss Montgomery?”
“Nothing at all that I can think of, Lord Whitlock.” She glanced coolly at him, as if he did not matter a whit to her.
Gregory Cardwell, carelessly unaware of the tension between them, said, “Can you believe a girl this beautiful has been hidden away in Ireland all this time? My parents are set on finding her a husband. Don't you think she'll be the hit of the Season in London?”
Aidan could barely get his mouth to form intelligible words. “Quite.”
“Lord Whitlock, there you are!” Lady Helene Winston declared in her typical breathless rush, as she came to Aidan's side. “I've been looking for you everywhere!”
For once Aidan was oddly grateful for Helene's presence. Smiling warmly, he extended his hand to her. Her flaxen hair was fashioned in an intricate knot of curls upon her head, which emphasized the angular lines of her rather aristocratic-looking face. She was delicately boned, willowy, and taller than average. The pale sea-green color of her gown accentuated her hazel eyes. Aidan had always believed Helene to be pretty, but now he was startled by how she paled completely in comparison to Vivienne's vivid coloring and radiant presence.
George Cardwell made the introductions between the women. “This is Lady Helene Winston. My cousin, Miss Vivienne Montgomery.”
Unconsciously sizing Vivienne up and down with a cool glance, Helene uttered politely, “It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Montgomery.”
“I am pleased to meet you as well, Lady Helene,” Vivienne responded.
“If you'll excuse us, I believe I promised Helene this dance.” Aidan knew he seemed curt, but he could not endure standing there any longer. Good God! If he had known he would be trapped at Bingham Hall with Vivienne Montgomery all week, he certainly would have made up some excuse, any excuse, not to come.
He drained the rest of his whiskey, handed the empty glass to a passing footman, and escorted Helene to the dance floor. As the orchestra played a waltz, he maneuvered her with expert skill through the elegantly attired couples and began to dance.