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“He didn’t anticipate anything of the sort.” He scrambled to his feet.

“Would you help me up?” She held out her hand. “It’s not at all hard to lower oneself to the ground in a ball gown but remarkably difficult to rise.”

“Certainly,” he murmured, and helped her to her feet. Without pause her arms slipped back around his neck. “Amelia, do not forget you are a married woman.”

“You’ve never been the least bit concerned about a lady’s marital state.”

“Well, the lady was never before my brother’s wife.” He removed her arms from his neck and stepped back, keeping her hands firmly clasped in his. Who knew where she might put them next. “I have certain moral standards, you know.”

“Nonsense. You have no morals whatsoever, and everyone knows it. Besides,
you
just kissed
me
.”

“An impulse. A momentary lapse in judgment.” He shook his head.

“How very flattering,” she said wryly.

“Which is not to say I did not enjoy it,” he added quickly.

“I was well aware of how much you enjoyed it.”

“But Robert might be home at any minute,” he warned.

“I don’t think so.” She shook off his grip, stepped closer, and rested her hands on his chest. “As I was under the impression he was already home.”

“Already…” She knew? Relief washed through him. He narrowed his eyes. “When did you know?”

“I didn’t know in the carriage, but you called me the love of your life tonight, and then Harry used the same phrase.” She shook her head. “It didn’t sound like something Harry would say, but wasn’t especially significant. But you didn’t seem to know anything about the bracelet.”

“What bracelet?”

“The one Harry gave Lady Deering.”

“Oh. That bracelet.” The bracelet he had picked up for his brother had started all this? That blasted bracelet had nearly cost him his wife. “How did you—”

She shrugged. “I ran across it inadvertently.”

“You should have trusted me.”

“Yes, I should.”

“Although admittedly I deserved your doubt.” He wrapped her arms around her.

“Yes, you did. You should know, though, it was your kiss that ultimately revealed your identity.”

“And yet you slapped me anyway.”

“A slap you did nothing to warrant?”

“Well, perhaps, there might have been—”

She laughed. “You should know, you’re dreadful at being Harry.”

“I am not!”

“Furthermore…” She paused. “Harry isn’t a very good you.”

“Harry hasn’t—” The significance of her words hit him. “Harry hasn’t pretended to be me for a very long time.”

“Six years, I should say.”

“You knew?”

“Of course I knew.”

“How? We used to be quite good at playing each other.”

“When you were boys perhaps. Darling Robert.” She placed her palm on his cheek. “I have loved you from the first moment I saw you as well. And while in appearance you may be indistinguishable from your brother, I have always been able to tell you apart. Perhaps it’s the look in your eye, or possibly the way you look at me, but it’s definitely in your kiss.”

“I like that.” The last remnant of doubt vanished with her words, and he pulled her closer against him. “I am sorry, Amelia, my love, that I lost sight of the fact that you are my love.”

“And I am sorry that I allowed you to do so. And worse, did not notice until it was very nearly too late.”

“Still, pretending to be Harry has its benefits. It made me realize that in many ways, a wife should indeed be treated with the effort and consideration and romance one might reserve for a mistress.”

“I would be happy to be your mistress, Robert.” She paused. “As well as your wife.”

“It made me realize something else too.” He shook his head. “I once promised to make every day an adventure, and I see now that was a mistake.”

“You did climb a wall for me.”

“As Harry.”

“Still, it was most adventurous. A bit stupid perhaps.”

“More than a bit.” He chuckled, then sobered. “In Harry’s words, all of life should be an adventure. And while I promise it will probably never again include climbing walls or pretending to be someone I’m not, I
promise as well to remember that love is like a garden and needs to be tended and not taken for granted.” He kissed her softly. “And love is indeed the greatest adventure of all.”

“You should know, I still intend to take a lover.”

He laughed. “Do you?”

“I do, and I have selected the perfect candidate.”

“Have you?”

“Indeed I have, and he looks exactly like you.”

“You don’t mean Harry?”

“No.” She brushed her lips across his. “Harry’s brother.”

He chuckled. “Excellent choice.”

“I thought so. But I rather think I like the idea of him remaining anonymous. A secret lover, as it were.”

“In that case your secret is safe with me.” He kissed her thoroughly and wondered at the foolishness of men who didn’t realize what they had until they had nearly lost it. “As is your heart.”

 

Now that you’ve read the e-book exclusive
Lady Amelia’s Secret Lover,
you won’t want to miss
the story of Amelia’s sister, Cordelia, in
V
ICTORIA
A
LEXANDER’S
forthcoming novel:

Secrets of a Proper Lady

Read and early excerpt now
then download the e-book September 25
th
and save 20% off the cover price
Visit www.harpercollinsebooks.com/harperblush

The following
Victoria Alexander
e-books
are also available from HarperBlush

The Lady in Question

Love with the Proper Husband

The Pursuit of Marriage

The Wedding Bargain

Her Highness, My Wife

The Husband List

The Marriage Lesson

The Prince’s Bride

A Visit from Sir Nicholas

When We Meet Again

Let It Be Love

A Little Bit Wicked

What a Lady Wants

 

The following is a preview of

Secrets of a Proper Lady
,

the latest novel from

New York Times
bestselling author

Victoria Alexander

On sale September 2007

from Avon Books

Prologue

London
June 1854

“C
ursed,” Daniel Sinclair said under his breath. “I have always considered myself a practical and rational sort but…” He shook his head. “We’re cursed, it’s the only explanation.”

“Nonsense.” Oliver Leighton, the Earl of Norcroft laughed. “We don’t believe in such things.”

“Still, your own Shakespeare said it.” Sinclair thought for a moment. “There are more things in heaven and earth than…how does that go?”

“‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’” Oliver said with a shrug. “I thought we had agreed that this is nothing more than coincidence.”

“Yes, of course.” Sinclair scoffed. “It’s no more than coincidence that four men, none of whom are remotely interested in marriage—”

“Actively opposed to it, I’d say,” Oliver murmured.

“—form a tontine with nothing more than a handful of coins and a bottle of cognac at stake and before you know it, two of them are gone.”

Oliver chuckled. “They’re not dead, Sinclair. Simply married.”

“Some might say it’s much the same thing,” Sinclair muttered darkly.

Oliver grinned at his American friend. “I had no idea your view of marriage was quite so pessimistic.”

“Under other circumstances, it’s not.” Sinclair settled back in his chair and considered the matter. “When we first gathered here at this club of yours, there were four of us. We each contributed one shilling, a contribution more symbolic than monetary, and purchased a bottle of the club’s finest cognac to be held here, in wait for the ultimate winner. You cannot tell me you didn’t expect that bottle to be held for a very long time.”

“I admit I didn’t think our numbers would diminish so quickly.”

“That was in February. It’s now June and only two of us are left.” Sinclair narrowed his eyes. “And frankly, I would have put their chances of winning this whole thing at better than ours.”

“You do have a point.”

Gideon Pearsall, Viscount Warton, was the first to go. Oliver would have bet far more than a mere shilling that Warton would have outlasted all of them, but who could have foreseen a lovely widow would have caught not merely Warton’s eye but his heart? Then there was
Nigel Cavendish, now Viscount Cavendish, who married abruptly, thanks to an errant pistol shot in the night, and then proceeded to fall deeply in love with his own wife. In Oliver’s opinion, given Cavendish’s penchant for amorous escapades and active avoidance of responsibility of any kind, Cavendish was right on the heels of Warton as to the ultimate winner of the tontine. The last man standing as it were.

Which left only Oliver and an American entrepreneur, Daniel Sinclair, whose development of railroads in his country had a great deal of potential for profit. Oliver and the others had invested in the American’s venture, and Oliver had no doubt it would ultimately be quite successful.

“I tell you, Norcroft, I feel the hot breath of matrimony on the back of my neck even as we speak.”

Oliver laughed. “It might be on the back of my neck.”

“But you don’t seem to mind. You, among all of us, have never seemed especially adverse to marriage.” Sinclair leaned toward Oliver and met his gaze firmly. “That’s why you’re safe and I’m doomed.” He shook his head in a mournful manner. “That’s how these things work.”

“These things?” Oliver raised a brow. “Are you talking about curses again?”

“Curses, fate, coincidence, whatever you wish to call it. It looks around for the one least likely to appreciate whatever it has planned then singles him out for, in this case, marriage. No, I’m most certainly doomed.” Sinclair tossed back the rest of his brandy then signaled a waiter for more. “I might as well walk out on the street right now and propose to the first woman who passes by.”

“It’s not that dire.” Oliver chuckled. “Who knows what might happen. Under the proper circumstances, I could certainly marry next.”

“Would you?” Sinclair accepted a fresh glass from the waiter. “I would appreciate it.”

“I’m afraid not.” Oliver studied the American. “It is nice to know, however, that you are preparing yourself.”

“Preparing myself?”

“To lose.”

Sinclair considered the other man for a long moment. “No, Norcroft, in spite of my suspicion that by forming this tontine we have shaken our fists at whatever gods rule these things and may well have brought a curse down upon our heads, I am not, by any means, surrendering.” He raised his glass. “I shall fight to my last dying breath.”

“Hear, hear,” Oliver said and clinked his glass with Sinclair.

“But I will give you this, Norcroft, should I be lucky enough to avoid fate or coincidence or this curse, I shall be delighted to drink a toast to you at your wedding.” Sinclair grinned. “With my cognac of course.”

Oliver returned the grin. “I shall count on it.”

Still, Sinclair had a point. It was odd that those least likely to marry were now happily wed. If they were indeed cursed, or if the American’s theory as to the contrary nature of fate was accurate, then Oliver needn’t concern himself with the prospect of marriage. At least not yet.

“However, if I were you”—Oliver’s grin widened—“I certainly wouldn’t wager on it.”

One must always be open to the possibility of adventure presented by a fork in the road.

An English Lady’s Traveling Companion

Chapter 1

E
ven the least astute among us, upon observing Lady Cordelia Bannister for the first, or even the second or third, time would immediately recognize that she was a young woman of sterling qualities. Properly raised, well mannered, respectful in all ways, and a credit to her parents. Even her penchant for travel, her writing about said travel, and a distinct hint of independence in her attitude would not significantly detract from that impression. Unless of course that first observation, or second or third, of the last
remaining unwed daughter of the Earl of Marsham took place on a particularly overcast summer day as Cordelia stood before her father’s desk in his library, her mother seated off to one side.

“No. Absolutely not. Why, the very suggestion is barbaric!” Cordelia stared at her father in stunned disbelief. “And this is why you called me here? Honestly. Father, for something of this magnitude, one should be given some sort of warning so that one might prepare oneself. I thought it was nothing more important than discussion of my latest bill at Madame Colette’s.”

The earl sat behind his desk, the very symbol of his authority and that of any number of earls preceding him, and closed his eyes momentarily as if to pray for strength, as he often had through the years when dealing with his daughters. “I have not yet seen that particular bill although I suspect it will not surprise me.”

“It’s really not that bad, dear,” Mother said with an unconcerned shrug. “No worse than usual.”

“That is good news,” Father said sharply and directed his attention back to Cordelia. “But it’s not the subject at hand.”

“As for the subject at hand.” Cordelia raised her chin and met her father’s gaze directly. “I have absolutely no intention of doing anything of the sort and frankly, Father, I don’t believe you can make me. I am of age after all.” Cordelia sank down into the chair that matched her mother’s. “I find the idea repugnant and offensive and really quite medieval.”

“I wouldn’t call it medieval,” her mother murmured.

“A bit out of fashion perhaps.”

The earl ignored his wife and stared at his youngest daughter. “Oh, but I can make you, Cordelia. And
your age is of no particular consequence as you are as firmly dependent on your family for your support and sustenance now as you were when you were a child. As your bill from your dressmaker attests.”

Cordelia was hard pressed to dispute the point given that Father was right. Still, a woman approaching her twenty-sixth birthday should not be forced to take a step as drastic as marriage without her approval. “Not entirely, Father. I’ve managed to save quite a tidy sum from my travel articles.”

His eyes narrowed. “Based on travel I paid for.”

“If you wish to look at it that way…” She shrugged in an offhand manner even if, in truth, there was no other way to look at.

Cordelia had accompanied her parents on a tour of Europe shortly after her eighteenth birthday and had fallen passionately in love with the grand adventure of travel. Two years later she had repeated the trip with her married older sisters Amelia, Edwina, and Beatrice. Then two years ago, she had joined Aunt Lavinia on an extensive and fascinating adventure to Egypt and the Holy Lands. Indeed, Cordelia had found that area of the world to be the most amazing place and could scarcely wait to return.

While Cordelia had always kept journals and diaries about her travels, it was Lavinia who had suggested she turn them into articles for ladies’ magazines. After all, Lavinia had said, if Cordelia wasn’t going to listen to her advice and marry, she should do something with her life if she didn’t want to end her days living with one of her sisters and caring for children that were not her own.

Cordelia had no intention of not marrying, indeed
she very much wished to marry; she simply hadn’t yet found a man worth the trouble. Because, as much as Lavinia encouraged marriage, she was never reluctant to point out that men were a great deal of trouble and exceptionally difficult creatures if not managed correctly. And, as Lavinia had been married three times herself, who would know better than she?

“This tidy sum of yours,” her father continued, “is it enough to support yourself? To put a roof over your head and clothes—expensive, fashionable clothes—on your back? To pay the salary of your companion? A companion, I might add, that would not be necessary if you had found yourself a husband as your sisters have done.”

“Admittedly, it might not be enough for all that,” Cordelia murmured.

In point of fact, the total she had accumulated from her writings was rather paltry if one looked at it as a living wage. In truth, Cordelia harbored no foolish illusions of independence. Although she was working on a compilation of her writings thus far, a travel book for the benefit of female travelers, she was realistic enough to know such an endeavor would not provide the means necessary to make her own way in the world. She’d once heard talk of a legacy from a distant aunt, but that was apparently conditional on marriage. Her only true hope for real independence lay in the possibility of a wealthy, if unknown, relative breathing his last and leaving Cordelia his entire fortune. As all relations on both sides of her family were accounted for, the possibility of that happening was extremely slim.

“I never asked for a companion, Father,” Cordelia said.

“And dear, Sarah Elizabeth is as much as a member of the family as if she were one of our own daughters.” Her mother pinned her father with a firm look. “And you well know it.”

Father rolled his gaze toward the ceiling. “Of course, she is. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. However, I do pay her a respectable wage. And Sarah Elizabeth’s position in this household is not the subject at the moment.”

“You’re right, Father.” Cordelia crossed her arms over her chest. “The subject is your desire to arrange a marriage between me and a man I have never met.”

“Arrange is such a hard word.” Mother shook her head. “Encourage is a far better word.”

Cordelia raised a brow. “But is it as accurate?”

“Yes,” Mother said brightly.

“No.” Father’s voice was firm. “You need this marriage, Cordelia, as much as I do. It’s not as if you have made any effort to find a husband on your own.”

Cordelia sniffed. “I’ve made every effort. I’ve simply not found the right man.”

“Well, I have.” He leaned back in his chair and studied his daughter. “I should think you would be pleased.”

Cordelia’s brows pulled together. “Why on earth would I be pleased? This is a decision that affects the rest of my life and you have taken it out of my hands.”

“Thus relieving you of the necessity of continuing your
efforts
in this regard. Cordelia.” Her father’s voice softened. “Have you or have you not had several proposals through the years?”

“I’m not sure I would use the word several,” Cordelia murmured.

“Three that I am aware of.” Mother glanced at her.

“That would definitely be several.”

Father nodded. “All of which you declined because?”

“I don’t recall,” Cordelia said in a lofty manner, although she did indeed recall quite clearly the reasons for rejecting each and every one.

Proposal number one came from a gentleman who was so deadly dull she envisioned a future filled with nothing more exciting than trying to keep awake as he droned on and on about topics of no consequence. Proposal number two was issued by a suitor who was quite dashing and handsome but certainly could not be trusted as, even as he’d asked for her hand, his eye was drifting elsewhere. Cordelia did not intend to be the type of wife who overlooked a husband’s indiscretions. It was rather a pity really as he was quite the type of man she could easily love. Fortunately for her heart, at that particular moment, she had not. And the third came from a pleasant enough gentleman with a distinguished title and an excellent family, although, given all Cordelia had heard about his finances, she’d been certain her appeal for him lay more in her substantial dowry and family connections than in any sense of affection.

Cordelia shrugged. “Suffice it to say, Father, I simply didn’t harbor any particular affection for any of them.”

Her mother leaned toward her father. “She wasn’t in love, dear.”

“Unfortunately, the time for love has passed.” Her father studied her for a long moment. “I would have
thought you would understand this situation, Cordelia. Aside from your romantic notions regarding this particular subject, I have long considered you the most practical and levelheaded of all my daughters. You have a fine mind as well.”

“Thank you, Father,” Cordelia said in a prim manner that belied her surprise. She’d always thought Father considered her somewhat frivolous and stubborn, rather like her mother.

“You are, in truth, the most like myself of my children.” He shook his head. “I too have always enjoyed the adventure of travel, the excitement of new places, the mystery of what might lie around the next corner in a foreign land. And I might add, I write a fine letter as well. In both temperament and interests I have long thought we are very much alike.”

Cordelia slanted a quick glance at her mother who appeared unsurprised by this startling revelation, but as Cordelia was not one to overlook a stroke of luck, she lowered her voice in a confidential manner. “I have always thought so, Father.”

“Then you will understand when I explain that a union with this man’s family will be in all our best interests. Cordelia.” Father paused to choose his words.

“As you well know, I have any number of business interests including primary ownership of a small shipping line. It’s been exceptionally profitable in the past, indeed, it has quite supported this household as well as the family estate. However, times are difficult at the moment and it’s not doing especially well. My finances are currently somewhat strained.”

Cordelia’s eyes widened. “How strained?”

Her mother reached over and patted her hand. “We are not about to lose home and hearth. It is not as bad as all that.”

“Not yet,” Father said, a vaguely ominous note in his voice. “Daniel Sinclair—”

“The man you wish me to marry,” Cordelia said.

Father nodded. “Is the son of American Harold Sinclair. The older Sinclair has amassed a vast fortune through various business interests around the world.”

“Including shipping?” Cordelia asked. Now this was beginning to make sense.

“Shipping comprises a significant portion of his business, yes. Steamboats in particular.” Father paused and tapped his fingers absently on the desk. “Mr. Sinclair and I have been corresponding for some time and I met with him a fortnight ago in Paris. He is interested in combining my company with his under the right conditions.”

“The right conditions being a combining of families as well as businesses?” Cordelia said slowly.

“Aside from the financial benefits on both sides, Harold Sinclair would very much like an alliance with an old and titled family.” Father said the words in a matter of fact manner, as if he were discussing nothing of importance.

“I gather Mr. Sinclair doesn’t have a daughter you can foist off on Will?” Cordelia glanced at her mother.

“You’ve long said Will needs to settle down and marry.”

Mother shrugged as if her only son’s marital status was of no concern at the moment.

“I have no idea if Mr. Sinclair has a daughter and it scarcely matters as Will is still in India attending to
family interests there.” Her father’s eyes narrowed. “Doing his part to improve his family’s lot.”

“And it’s my turn now, is it?” Cordelia struggled to keep her voice light. “To preserve the family fortune I must agree to marry a man I have never met. An American no less.”

“We thought you’d like the American part of it,” Mother murmured.

Her father studied his daughter silently.

“This difficulty with Father’s business puts an entirely different light on it all, doesn’t it?” Cordelia got to her feet, wrapped her arms around herself, and paced the room. “If I refuse, I’ll be responsible for…” She glanced at her father.

“A detrimental reversal of family income,” her father said dryly.

“And if I agree…” Cordelia drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “I can’t, I just can’t.”

“Of course you can,” Mother said.

“Mother!” Cordelia stared. “I thought you would be on my side in this.”

“I am, darling, which is why I think you should look at this in a calm and rational manner.” Her mother ticked the points off on her fingers. “You are twenty-five years old and while you have had every opportunity to find an appropriate match, you have yet to do so. Who knows when and if another opportunity to marry might come again. This could very well be the intervention of fate and as such should not be dismissed out of hand. You really should give this idea due consideration.”

“Mother.” Cordelia gasped. “This is eighteen fifty-four. This sort of thing isn’t done today.”

“Nonsense.” Mother huffed. “It’s done all the time. People simply don’t talk about it the way they once did. It’s really not at all uncommon and in many ways something of a family tradition.” The countess leaned toward her daughter and met her gaze firmly. “You certainly don’t think I wanted to marry your father, do you?”

Cordelia’s eyes widened. “What?”

Her father’s brow furrowed. “What?”

“Well, not at first, darling.” Mother cast her husband an affectionate smile. “You and I both know our match was at the instigation of our families. It was simply blind luck that I found you wildly attractive and dashing and fell thoroughly in love with you at first sight.” She paused. “Well, perhaps not at first sight but very soon and quite forever.”

Father appeared somewhat mollified by her words.

“And look at how well we have turned out.” She beamed at her daughter. “Cordelia dear, we’re not asking you to make a decision at this very moment. You should have time to consider this. In fact, as we are leaving for Brighton within the week, I thought it would be an excellent idea if you and the younger Mr. Sinclair were to exchange notes while we are away from London. You can begin to get to know one another. One can learn a great deal about a man’s nature by what he reveals on the written page.”

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