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Wicked Temptation (Regency Sinners 6) by Carole Mortimer (1)

Chapter 1

 

October, 1815

St. George’s Church,

Hanover Square, London

 

“I had not expected to see you here today, Lady Prudence.”

Pru’s attention was focused on the happy couple who had just been married, the Marquis of Wessex and his new marchioness, Pru’s closest friend, Jocey. The newlyweds were now accepting the congratulations and the throwing of rice from their guests as they stood outside the church.

Pru stood apart from both the newlyweds and their other guests. Not that it was truly necessary she have that physical distance for her to feel totally removed from other people. The numbness she had felt inside these past six weeks had succeeded in distancing her from her surroundings and the people in it.

She now turned her cool blue gaze upon the gentleman who had dared to interrupt that solitude.

“But I am very pleased to do so,” Lord Titus Covington, Viscount Romney, added warmly, once he knew he had her attention.

It was a warmth and pleasure in seeing him again that Pru did not reciprocate in the slightest.

It had not always been the case, of course. Viscount Romney, aged in his midthirties and unmarried, was undoubtedly one of the most eligible gentlemen in England. He was also very tall and muscular, dark-haired, extremely handsome, and in possession of a vast fortune. Pru had been smitten with him several months ago and had to watch enviously as he paid special attention to her twin, Priscilla, rather than to her.

The two sisters were identical twins—had been identical twins, Pru corrected hollowly. Because her sister no longer lived. Cilla had been killed in a carriage accident six long weeks ago. An accident which had also taken the life of one of Romney’s closest friends, Lord Jeremiah Worthington.

No one had been more surprised than Cilla and Pru when those two handsome gentlemen began to show them special attention during the late summer, Romney to Cilla, Worthington to Pru.

Ironic, then, that it was Pru and Romney who had survived the accident, along with the twins’ maid, and Cilla and Worthington who were now consigned to their early graves.

Pru gazed at Romney dispassionately. He now had several livid scars on his left cheek and down that side of his neck as a result of the fire that had consumed the carriage in which they were all traveling when the accident occurred. But those scars added to rather than distracted from his overall attractiveness, giving a dangerous and piratical daring to a face which was already far too handsome for any woman’s peace of mind: piercing, dark blue eyes, a long and aristocratic nose, with sculpted, firm lips above a square and arrogant jaw.

That he was also broad of shoulder, wide of chest, and slender of waist, with muscular and long legs, seemed an overabundance of masculinity and somewhat unfair to the other single gentlemen of the ton less fortunate in their attributes.

“Might I offer you and your maid a ride in my carriage to the wedding breakfast?” he suggested at Pru’s lack of response to his earlier remarks.

A reminder that she could not just continue to stare at him, unresponsive to any and all of his comments. Not only was it unacceptable in the polite society they both inhabited, but the fact they were talking at all was garnering a certain amount of curiosity from some of the other wedding guests.

Rightly so, of course.

Today’s groom, Lord Jericho Black, the Marquis of Wessex, was another of Romney’s closest friends, along with five other gentlemen present today, those seven gentlemen known in Society as The Sinners. Their friendship was of such closeness, Pru had no doubt those other six gentlemen were well aware of the rift that now existed between herself and Romney.

Mainly because Pru had consistently resisted every effort on Romney’s part to contact or see her since the accident, be it by letter or by a personal visit to her family’s London home.

During the first weeks after her sister’s death, she had been too numbed to wish to see or talk to anyone outside her family and her closest friend, Lady Jocelyn Forbes. Once that numbness began to abate, Pru’s refusal to see or accept any correspondence from Romney had been a conscious decision.

In her mind, whether it was fair or not, she had come to associate Romney and Worthington’s advent into her life and that of her sister with Cilla’s death.

She and Cilla had enjoyed a life of Society balls, parties, and general frivolity for the three years before Romney and Worthington decided to show such a marked interest in them this summer. A life where the only decisions the sisters ever needed to make was which gown or bonnet they would wear that day or evening, and which gentlemen they intended to flirt with.

It might have appeared a life of too much frivolity to some, but the Germaine family had not always been rich. Pru’s and Cilla’s childhood had been somewhat austere in regard to unnecessary purchases or comforts. A large legacy left to their father, the Earl of Winchester, when the twins were aged fourteen, by a distant uncle who had resided in America for over twenty years, had changed their circumstances overnight.

Their father, ever conscious of the life of frugality his countess and daughters had so far been forced to live, instantly began to indulge their slightest whim. An indulgence which had continued before and since the twins were seventeen and old enough to make their debut into Society.

Never during any of those years had Pru or Cilla felt or been in the least danger from anyone or anything. Within weeks of Romney’s and Covington’s initial attentions to them, Cilla was dead and Pru left devastated by the loss of her twin.

Was it any wonder she had no wish to see or speak with Romney ever again, or that she had done everything possible to ensure it did not happen?

Except today, when she could not refuse Jocey’s entreaties for Pru to attend her wedding to the Marquis of Wessex, the gentleman who had previously been Jocey’s guardian and whom Pru knew her friend loved dearly.

Pru valued Jocey’s friendship more than ever now that she had lost her twin. Indeed, the only times she had left Germaine House since Cilla’s funeral had been to pay several visits to Jocey, who had been struck down with illness almost five weeks ago and unable to leave her guardian’s house.

Today’s wedding was bittersweet for Pru. She was pleased for Jocey that she was marrying the man she loved, but at the same time, she knew her twin would have loved to attend the celebrations. In the normal way of things, the two of them would have spent weeks poring over patterns and fabrics for the gowns they would wear for the occasion.

Instead, Pru was wearing an austere black gown, one that had been delivered to the house by her seamstress along with several other suitably dark gowns, all without Pru so much as seeing them. A mourning gown was exactly that, and her sense of loss ran far too deep to care whether she was wearing a fashionable silk gown or a burlap sack.

Nor did she care for the fact Romney had taken advantage of her presence today in order to speak to her when her previous refusals had shown she no longer wished to continue their acquaintance. Merely looking at him, seeing those livid scars upon his cheek and throat, and knowing why and how he’d acquired them, brought Pru’s feelings of inner despair crashing down upon her like a heavy weight.

She also suffered an uneasy feeling that Romney knew more about her sister’s and Worthington’s deaths than anyone but perhaps his close friends, the other six remaining Sinners.

It made no sense for Pru to have such thoughts when Romney had been severely burned during the accident and also suffered a great personal loss. One had only to be in the company of Worthington and Romney for a few minutes to realize their almost lifelong friendship had made them as close as brothers.

Nevertheless, the feeling of Romney’s involvement in the accident persisted, and there was nothing Pru could do to push those dark thoughts from her mind.

“No, thank you,” she now answered him coolly. “I have my own carriage, along with my maid.” She nodded to where Mary stood a short distance away. “Nor do I have plans to attend the wedding breakfast.”

It took every effort of Titus’s considerable will to restrain the frustration he felt at Prudence Germaine’s obvious dismissal of him. A viscount and a powerful member of the House, as well as a valued agent for the Crown, he was unaccustomed to being dismissed by anyone, least of all a chit fifteen years his junior.

Except the changes he could see in this particular chit from when he had last seen Prudence showed she was in deep mourning for her twin.

Well…possibly not the changes since the last time he had seen her, because that had been directly after the carriage accident which had resulted in the death of her sister and one of his closest friends. On that occasion, Prudence had been covered in blood and black smoke, her face deathly white.

Whenever Titus had seen Lady Prudence before that night, she had been full of fun and laughter and always appeared in a richness of different-colored gowns, obviously chosen to complement her blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty.

That golden hair was pulled back in a severe style today and covered by a black bonnet secured beneath her chin with a black ribbon. Her face was snow-white and far thinner than previously. It was a pallor that emphasized the beauty of her darkly shadowed blue eyes.

The black gown was obviously worn out of deep mourning for her twin, and yet there was a beauty to be seen even in that austerity of appearance. One Titus was sure Prudence was completely unaware of. The tightness of the bodice revealed the fragility of the pale skin at her throat and across her clavicle, and emphasized the fullness of the breasts below.

He and Worthington had initially balked at the mission given to them by the Crown once they learned the two ladies they were to investigate for being suspected of treason were the Germaine twins. Two sillier young ladies it had never been their misfortune to meet, and it was near to impossible to ever believe either of them could have been involved not only in Napoleon’s escape from Elba earlier this year, but have also been a traitor to England for some time before and since the escape of the deposed emperor.

Earlier investigations had revealed that it was one of eight particular ladies in Society who was that traitor. Titus and the other seven Sinners, all of them agents for the Crown, had been chosen to carry out the mission of discovering which of those ladies was guilty. Five of them had already been declared innocent of any misdeed.

As Titus was to investigate Priscilla Germaine and Worthington her twin, Prudence, and as the sisters were never seen one without the other, the two gentlemen had decided to carry out their investigation together.

Closer acquaintance with the sisters had revealed them as not being quite as silly as he and Worthington had thought they were. That the twins were not only beautiful and entertaining but, unlike so many young ladies of the ton, they never had a bad word or criticism to say about anyone. Titus had come to like them both, in spite of himself, and he knew Worthington had felt the same.

Under other circumstances, the two gentlemen might even have found themselves attracted to Prudence and Priscilla. Indeed, they had both been attracted to them.

Just not to the sister whose guilt or innocence they were supposed to prove.

Prudence and Priscilla might be identical twins, and yet from the first, Titus had no difficulty in knowing which of the two Prudence was. Her eyes were a darker shade of blue than her sister’s, and her face had been slightly rounder. But it was not only those physical differences which set Prudence apart. She also had a lively and wicked wit and could converse as easily on political matters and horseflesh as she could about gowns and bonnets. Priscilla had a sweeter nature and no interest in politics or anything else of a serious nature.

Now Worthington and Priscilla were dead, and Prudence had refused to so much as read one of the letters Titus had written and had delivered to her since those deaths, let alone allow him admittance on any of the occasions he had called upon her at Germaine House since the carriage accident six weeks ago.

Except Titus knew that “accident” had not been accidental at all but a desperate move on the part of the traitor to England as a way of muddying the waters regarding their own identity. As he also knew Prudence might still be in mortal danger from that traitor.

Indeed, as Prudence refused to have anything more to do with him, Titus had arranged for several men who had previously served under him in the army to keep watch on her at Germaine House these past six weeks. He had not asked his friend and spymaster, Dominik Sinclair, the Duke of Stonewell, to supply any of his agents for that protection, knowing that Nik, in spite of everything, still had his suspicions in regard to Prudence’s innocence.

Titus now nodded acknowledgment of her refusal to accompany him in his carriage to the wedding breakfast. “Then might I call upon you at Germaine House tomorrow?”

Her jaw tensed. “I would prefer you did not.”

He raised dark brows. “That was not a no.”

“It was not a yes either.”

He reached out to place his hand upon her arm. “Prudence—”

She instantly snatched that arm away. “We have nothing to say to each other.” Her eyes flashed her anger at his daring to touch her. “Besides which, I am in mourning and not receiving visitors,” she added as he would have spoken.

“You attended your friend’s wedding today.”

“That is because she is a friend. You are not,” she added decisively.

He winced. “Pru—”

“If you will excuse me.” She turned with a swish of the black taffeta skirt of her gown, signaling to her maid to accompany her as she walked to her carriage, her head held high, and giving every appearance of being unapproachable.

“I take it your attempt to renew your acquaintance with Lady Prudence did not go well.”

Titus turned abruptly to face the Duke of Stonewell. “I doubt she will ever forgive me for what she obviously suspects to have been my part in her sister’s death.”

Stonewell’s eyes narrowed. “Why should she suspect that? Unless she is the traitor, after all—”

“How can you persist in these doubts when her own twin is now dead?” Titus’s hands were clenched at his sides.

“I dare because I am not emotionally involved with her—”

“Neither am I!”

Stonewell eyed him skeptically. “No?” he drawled dryly. “I thought I had made it clear that Lady Priscilla’s death is in no way proof of Lady Prudence’s innocence,” he said when Titus made no reply. “Unpleasant as it is, that lady is still under investigation for acts of treason. Your investigation,” he added pointedly.

Titus was aware of that. In fact, he had insisted, once Stonewell made it clear the investigation into Lady Prudence would continue, that he would be the one to prove or disprove her innocence. The thought of allowing any of the other Sinners to do so was completely unacceptable to him.

He glared at the duke from between narrowed lids. “And this steeliness on your part in regard to Lady Prudence has nothing to do with your own vested interest in finding that lady guilty?”

Stonewell eyed him coldly. “I shall endeavor to forget you said that.”

Titus snorted. “Do not worry, you shall have your proof. One way or the other.” For Prudence’s sake, as well as his own, Titus hoped that he would be able to prove her innocent beyond even Stonewell’s doubt.

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