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The Hidden Heart by Candace Camp (1)

Keep reading for a special preview of His Wicked Charm, the latest book in Candace Camp’s popular Mad Morelands series!

PROLOGUE

The door opened. The room beyond lay in darkness, broken only by a swath of moonlight. There was no reason to be frightened, yet some nameless, faceless terror iced Con’s veins. Still, he stepped inside. The fear behind him was worse.

The walls of the room were curved, disorienting, and everywhere he looked were clocks—standing, hanging, scattered over tables and stands, lined up in cabinets. Brass hands winked, catching the dim light. He moved farther in, his heart pounding, and stopped at a narrow table. The tiered rows were padded with dark velvet, and it was lined, with not clocks, but compasses, their needles pointing in unison toward the windows. Turning now, he saw that compasses stood in the cabinets and hung on the walls amidst the clocks.

He was too late. He knew it with a certainty that closed his throat: he would fail. Con ran toward the window, but he didn’t move. The needles on the compasses began to whirl. Running, gasping, he reached out, knowing he’d never reach it in time. Someone screamed.

Con’s eyes flew open, and he jerked upright in the bed. His lungs labored in his chest, his heart thundering, and his muscles clenched, fists curled so tightly his fingernails bit into his palms. Sweat dried cold on his skin.

It was a dream.

He glanced around him. He was in his own bed, in his own room. Only a dream.

Through the open doorway into the adjoining sitting room, he could see Wellie perched in the his cage, regarding Con with bright black eyes. That scream must have been the parrot’s screech.

The bird moved from foot to foot and rasped out, “Wellie. Good bird.”

“Yes. Good bird.” Con’s voice came out almost as hoarse as Wellington’s. He sank back onto his pillow, closing his eyes. It had been nothing but a bad dream and easily explained—today was Alex’s wedding day. He was worried about oversleeping and failing in his duties. The problem was: he’d been having the exact same nightmare for weeks.

CHAPTER 1

When Con awoke again, sunlight was shooting through a crack in the drapes straight into his eye. For the second time he bolted upright. Heaven help him. After all that, he’d overslept. Jumping out of bed, he began to shave.

Wellington called out Con’s name and flew into the room, taking up his favorite position atop a bedpost. “You wretched bird—screeching like a banshee in the middle of the night, yet not a word when it’s time to get up.

Wellie let out a noise that sounded disturbingly like human laughter. Con grinned and patted his shoulder for Wellie to perch on it. Con stroked a finger down the parrot’s back.

“It’s just you and me now, boy,” he said softly. “Alex is going on to better things.”

There was an odd pang in his chest; Con had felt it more than once lately. He couldn’t be happier for his twin—Sabrina was perfect for Alex and loved him madly. Alex was over the moon about marrying her. There was nothing in the world Con wanted more than his brother’s happiness. And yet….he could not help but feel as if a piece of him was leaving.

With a sigh at his own selfishness, Con set Wellie aside and headed downstairs. He found Alex in the dining room, gazing out the window—shaved, dressed, and ready to go eight hours before the ceremony. Casting an eye over his twin, Con said, “Eager or terrified?”

“A little of both.” Alex let out his breath in a whoosh. “Thank God you’re finally up.”

“Why didn’t you wake me?” Con asked, going to the sideboard to fill his plate.

“Because it was four o’clock in the morning. Wellie woke me up screeching, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I didn’t think you’d care to be awakened.”

“Where is everyone?”

“The women have headed to Kyria’s to help with the last minute preparations. Though what any of them could do to set up a party, I cannot imagine.”

“Mm. Maybe Thisbe has a formula for it.”

Alex grinned. “Or Megan and Olivia have investigated the subject.”

“I’m sure Mother will enjoy trying to persuade the servants to strike.” Con returned to the table.

Alex took a seat across from his twin. “Not like Wellie to sound off in the middle of the night like that. One has to wonder what set him off.”

“Does one?”

“Con…did you have that dream again?”

“Yes. It’s not important.”

Alex grunted softly. “It certainly doesn’t seem to have affected your appetite.”

“Little does.” Con gestured toward the pristine expanse of table in front of Alex. “What about you? Have you eaten anything?”

“I had a cup of coffee.”

“No doubt that will calm you down.”

Alex rolled his eyes and went over to pull a piece of toast from the rack. “You’re not going to distract me from your dream.”

“I know. But there’s nothing new to tell. It’s the same dream I’ve had five times now. I’m in a bizarre round room. There are clocks and compasses everywhere, and I have this feeling of absolute dread.” He paused. “Maybe it’s panic rather than dread. I feel as if I’m late. I’m sure it’s just because of the wedding. I’m worried about not getting to the jeweler’s in time for the ring. Keeping this family in line. Being late to the church. All that.”

“I have never in my life known you to be so concerned about being late,” Alex said flatly.

“You’ve never gotten married before.” Con shrugged it off. “Speaking of being late, why the devil are you all turned out in your wedding coat this early? You’ll be creased and stained by the time the ceremony rolls around.”

“I know. I’ll change. It was just…I couldn’t think what else to do.” Alex sighed. “This is going to be the longest day of my life.”

“Why so nervous? You’ve been chomping at the bit for weeks. I can’t imagine you’re having second thoughts.”

“Lord, no, nothing like that. But I can’t rid myself of the fear that something will keep it from taking place. That Sabrina will decide to call it off at the last minute.”

“The woman’s mad for you. Anyone can see that.”

“I woke up this morning thinking what if the Dearborns grab her again?”

“Idiot. She’s at Kyria’s, with all that brood to protect her.”

“I know. Not to mention her friend Miss Holcutt.”

“Indeed. I’d warrant Miss Holcutt could scare off any chap with wicked intentions.”

Alex smiled. “You’re inordinately hard on Lilah.”

“It’s inordinately easy to be hard on Lilah,” Con tossed back.

“I think the reason is you’re also rather sweet on Lilah.” Con’s contemptuous snort only made Alex grin. “Not to mention the fact that she’s the only woman to turn down your advances.”

“That’s not true.”

“Oh, really? What other girl has told you no when you asked her to take a stroll in the garden? For that matter, what woman has turned you down about anything—excluding our sisters, of course?”

“Dozens, I’m sure.” Con paused. “Well, a few. I’m not universally approved of, you know. You’re the one who’s the perfect model of a marital prize.”

“I’m not the one who’s a charming rogue.”

“I beg your pardon. I am charming, of course, but hardly a rogue.”

Alex laughed and reached over to steal a sausage from Con’s plate. “Actually, I’m surprised you aren’t pursuing Lilah. I would think she would be a challenge to you.”

“Maybe I would.” A faint smile curved Con’s lips. “If she weren’t your future wife’s bosom friend. That makes things a trifle awkward.”

“Not necessarily. Not if the two of you suited.”

Con snorted. “What is it that makes a reformed bachelor want to take all the rest of us down with him?”

Alex ignored his plaintive question. “Miss Holcutt is rather attractive.”

Con thought of that bright hair, an indescribable color somewhere between gold and red, that dewy skin, the long slim body beneath her conservative gowns. ‘Rather attractive’ didn’t begin to describe Lilah.

“That’s the problem. Lilah Holcutt is the sort of woman who leads you on a merry chase, and once you manage to catch her, you can’t imagine why you wanted to. She’s priggish, self-righteous, humorless, and critical. She’d make any man’s life a misery. Besides, she’s made it quite clear that she detests me.”

Alex crossed his arms, regarding Con thoughtfully. Con was grateful that before Alex could speak again, their mother swept into the room. “Alex. Dearest.”

Both men rose. “Mother. I thought you’d gone to Kyria’s.”

“No, dear. I’m of little use there. Neither are the others, of course; Kyria and Miss Holcutt could easily handle it all themselves, but it’s a nice bit of sisterly time. And I’m not going to pass your wedding day apart from you.” She took Alex’s face in her hands. Tears glittered in her eyes. “I can scarcely believe it’s your wedding day. It seems like only yesterday you were in leading strings.”

“I’m not the first of your children to marry,” Alex protested.

“I know. But those times, I knew I still had my babies. Now it’s my baby getting married.”

“You have Con.”

The duchess smiled at her other son. “Yes, but it won’t be long before you are married, too, Con.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have me around to bother you for years,” Con told her lightly. “I doubt I’m marriage material.”

Emmeline chuckled. “Now, where have I heard that before?” She patted Con’s cheek. “And you were never a bother. Either of you.”

“Mother, how could I marry?” Con laughed. “I’ll never find a woman who compares to you.”

Hours later, Con stood beside his brother as Alex’s bride made her way slowly down the aisle on the arm of Uncle Bellard. Con was unsure whether Bellard was supporting her or Sabrina was holding up their small and shy great uncle. Bellard had been thrilled when Sabrina, having no male relatives of her own, had asked him to escort her, but this afternoon the old man had been dithering about, several shades paler than even the groom.

Alex, oddly enough, lost his nervousness the moment Sabrina came into view. Black-haired and blue-eyed, with a strawberries-and-cream complexion and a bewitching smile, she was a vision, and Alex could not take his eyes off her.

Con looked across at Sabrina’s maid of honor. Lilah Holcutt was tall and willowy, and when she smiled, her lips curved in a faintly lopsided way that never failed to send a sizzle through Con. It was fortunate for him, he supposed, that Lilah was not prone to smile often…at least, not around him. She was more apt to send him that look. The one that said she found him irredeemably foolish. Strangely enough, that one, too, set off a little tickle in him.

She was especially attractive today. Her face was too well-formed, her form too alluring, her hair too fascinating a color for her to ever be anything but lovely. But today there was something different about her. Con suspected that his sister Kyria had something to do with that. Lilah’s red-gold hair was not pulled back into its usual neat twist that stopped just short of severe. Nor was her blue dress the plain pastel frock she normally wore.

Her gown was a rich, vivid blue that accentuated the color of her eyes, with a scoop neckline and a fall of soft lace at the sleeves, leaving much of her arms bare. She had beautiful arms. And her hair, that bright blend of red and gold that Con had never seen on anyone else, was swept up into a soft roll, with a small strand on either side curling down beside her ears in a way that made a man’s fingers itch to touch it.

Lilah’s gaze had been on the bride and groom, but now she glanced over. He sent her a friendly wink, and she frowned. Obviously he had again earned her disapproval. With Lilah, that was easily done. It was one of the many reasons it was wise to avoid her.

But then, wisdom had never been Con’s guiding principle.

CHAPTER 2

The celebration after the wedding was held at Kyria’s house, and it was easy to see Kyria’s touch. Great swaths of white satin and silver netting were draped artistically about the ballroom, glowing in the warm light of wall sconces, and the air was perfumed with the scent of hundreds of white roses, creating a richly romantic backdrop. In the garden, tiny lights lined the pathways and dotted the branches.

A small orchestra was playing at one end of the room, the dance floor empty as Alex took Sabrina out for their first dance as a married couple. Lilah stood with the others, watching them.

Sabrina gazed up at her groom, her face so alight with love it almost made Lilah’s chest hurt. Lilah tried to imagine what it must be like to feel so much for another person that one’s face simply shone with it. Lilah had some difficulty with the notion. She herself did not lack for suitors, many of them quite eligible men, but she had never felt even a tingle of such feeling.

Alex clearly was just as much in love as Sabrina. Lilah had watched him earlier as Sabrina came down the aisle, his face alight with love. She had glanced at Con then, wondering what he felt on this occasion. It must be strange to lose one’s twin to marriage. Irritating as Con was, Lilah had felt a little pang of sympathy for him.

But then Con flashed that cocky grin at and winked. In the middle of a wedding. It was typical of the man. She didn’t know why she bothered to feel any sympathy for him. Constantine Moreland never took anything seriously. Well, almost never—Lilah had seen his face two months ago when Alex was kidnapped, and Con’s face then had been downright frightening.

When the stately first waltz ended, other couples joined the newlyweds on the. Lilah glanced around, certain she would see Con among the dancers. She wondered who he would choose to partner. He had never seemed to favor any particular girl with his attentions. He had even danced with her that one time.

Though he would never do so again, no doubt. Lilah blushed at that memory. Con thought her irredeemably foolish for the way she had reacted when he asked her to walk in the garden with him after their dance. Lilah knew now that she had been impulsive and silly; she had only recently come out, and her greenness had showed. Not that she had been wrong—a man didn’t ask a young girl to walk in the garden at a party unless his intentions were less than virtuous. But she had learned since then how to turn aside such a man without resorting to anything so overwrought as slapping him.

Lilah scowled down at her glove, needlessly fussing with the button. Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of Alex’s cousins making her way toward her. Albert had apparently taken a liking to Lilah; he had dogged her footsteps all day. She’d managed to slip away each time, but she had the gloomy suspicion she wouldn’t be able to dodge him this time. She could hardly be impolite to one of the Moreland family, but, having danced with Cousin Albert at the engagement party, Lilah knew that taking to the floor with him would not only be a dreadful bore but also a very real danger to her toes.

Hoping he had not realized she’d spotted him, Lilah started to turn away. Just at that moment, a man behind her said, “Miss Holcutt. Would you care to dance?”

“Con!” She whirled. “Oh, thank God.”

His green eyes twinkled. “What an unexpectedly enthusiastic response. I daresay you must have seen Cousin Albert setting his course.”

“Yes.” There was no need to pretend politeness where Con was concerned.

She took his arm and Con whisked her away to the dance floor, pulling her to him and seamlessly joining the other dancers. Lilah had forgotten what it was like to dance with Con—so quick and light, his hand firm on her waist, holding her a trifle closer than was appropriate. It was easy to match his steps, to follow the guide of his hand. He was an expert dancer, and one had only to let go and trust him.

She could not keep from smiling up at him. It was better not to encourage Con—he was already too full of himself—and she always careful not to do anything that would draw attention, but right now she was enjoying herself too much to care.

When the music ended, Lilah was flushed and breathless, surging with energy. She would have liked to dance again, but of course, that would never do; even Con would know better than that. Whipping open her delicate ivory and lace fan, she tried to cool her overheated face. Con led her toward the open windows, snagging two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter and handing her one.

Lilah rarely drank wine of any sort, but she was too thirsty not to take a great gulp of it. It fizzed in her mouth, tingling and cool, yet with its own delicious sting, as well, and she drank the rest of it. Con’s eyebrows shot up.

“Careful. I can’t have you getting foxed on me.” He plucked the empty glass from her hand and set it aside.

“I won’t. It’s just so hot in here.”

Con glanced toward the French doors, standing open to the terrace, then back to her. “Dare I suggest we step outside? I assure you I won’t try to lure you into the garden this time.”

Lilah cast him a speaking glance and took his arm, turning toward the open doors. “One can only wonder why you did so the first time, considering that you think I’m such a prig.”

He chuckled and took a sip from his glass. “I am, as you have pointed out, entirely too impulsive.”

“That’s no answer.” But Lilah was feeling too companionable at the moment to pursue the subject. Her customary annoyance with Con had vanished with the waltz.

They strolled the length of the terrace, now and then passing another couple doing the same. Lilah lifted her flushed face to the cool night air. She began to hum the waltz beneath her breath, wishing she could dance along the terrace. She smiled to herself at the idea of causing such a commotion. Con’s jaw would drop. She had to press her lips together tightly to hold back a giggle.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have gulped down that glass of champagne. It wasn’t like her. Or perhaps it had been the dance, whirling around the room in Con Moreland’s arms. That, too, had been unlike her. Mostly likely it was because she was with Con; there was something about him that encouraged misbehavior.

He said inappropriate things that made her laugh. His smile, his wink, that twinkle in his eye just before he did or said something outrageous, enticed one to go along with him. If he had been a woman, people would have termed him a temptress. She wasn’t sure what one called such a man. Dangerous came to mind.

She glanced up at Con, so close beside her she could feel the warmth of his body. As if sensing her gaze, he turned his head. With only the mellow light streaming from the windows of the ballroom behind them, Con’s face was half-shadowed, his eyes dark. But the dimness could not hide how handsome he was—the firm chin and square jaw, the way his mouth curved up slightly, as if he was about to break into a grin.

It was odd how much he looked like his twin, and yet she had never felt a twinge of attraction to Alex. When she first met Con’s brother, she had realized almost immediately that he was not Con. There had been no spark running along her nerves, no tightening of her stomach. Alex was easy to talk to; with Con, Lilah always felt as if she needed to be on her guard.

If she wasn’t careful, she might stumble. And Lilah was a person who liked her feet firmly planted on the ground. It was disconcerting to have this uncertainty. It was even more alarming that it also excited her. Surely that was not how it ought to be.

They reached the end of the walkway and turned to look out over the garden below. Delicate paper lanterns lit the garden paths, but up here on the terrace, they were deep in shadow. Con set his glass on the wide stone balustrade and leaned casually against a column, his eyes on Lilah rather than the view.

Lilah’s pulse picked up. It was dim and secluded here, the occasional sound of a voice a distant background. She remembered the other time she had stood on a terrace with Con, almost breathless with a volatile combination of excitement, anxiety, and a guilty certainty that her aunt would not approve.

“Tell me, truly,” Lilah said impulsively. “That night…why did you even ask me to dance, much less stroll in the garden with you? I understand your doing so tonight—I’m your new sister-in-law’s friend, and you must be polite. But why did you ask me to dance back then?”

“Have you looked in a mirror?” Con countered.

“You were swept away by my beauty?” Lilah cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “There were dozens of pretty young girls there, and I would wager I am not the sort you normally dance with. Much less take out on the terrace with ulterior motives.”

“My motives weren’t ulterior. I thought they were quite straightforward.”

Lilah was reminded why she found him irritating. She turned away, fixing her eyes on the flowers and shrubs below. “Was it—did you do it because I was newly out? Because you thought I would be so naïve I wouldn’t realize I was risking my reputation?”

“No!” Con’s voice was filled with affront and astonishment. “It wasn’t like that. I didn’t ask you to dance because I thought I could trick you into anything. Do you really think that badly of me?”

Lilah relaxed, surprised at how relieved she was by his indignant response. “No. Not really. Well, perhaps I did wonder that a bit. Afterwards.” When he never approached her again.

“I asked you to dance because I wanted to waltz with you. I asked you out on the terrace to spend more time with you without the noise of the party. And I asked you to take a stroll through the garden because…very well, I did hope I might get a chance to kiss you. But I didn’t want to kiss you because you were the low-hanging fruit on a tree.”

“Or to add another girl to your collection?”

“My collection!” Con goggled at her. “What the devil do you take me for? I don’t have a collection. I’m not some roue out seducing young ladies. Good Lord, Lilah, but you are a suspicious woman.”

“It’s not so absurd to suspect that,” she retorted. “You find me rigid, prim and proper.”

“You forgot judgmental.”

“Oh, yes, sorry—and judgmental.” She crossed her arms, glaring at him. “So why would you want to dance with such a woman?”

“If you must know, it was because you were wearing lilac stockings.”

“What?” Lilah stared at him.

He shrugged and turned away, now the one to keep his eyes on the view. “You asked.”

“But why…how…”

“It’s nice to know I can render you speechless.”

“That’s absurd. How could you know what color stockings I had on? I don’t even remember what color they were.”

“Clearly the sight of them made more of an impression on me than it did on you.” Con glanced back at her. “I was standing at the foot of the stairs when you came in. You were so terribly prim and proper, all in maidenly white, modestly covered to your neck, your face blankly polite, your hair braided and curled into a knot like a governess, your chaperone glued to your side. I thought, there’s a beauty, but she looks an utter bore.”

“How kind of you,” Lilah said drily. “But that hardly explains why you decided to ask me for a waltz.”

“You climbed the stairs, lifting your skirt to keep from stepping on it, and I saw your ankles. You were wearing bright lilac stockings. And I thought, there’s more to her than meets the eye.” He paused, considering. “Besides, you have lovely ankles.”

Lilah gaped at him, then began to laugh. His reasoning was so strange, so very Con-like—flattering, insulting, and preposterous all at once—that she couldn’t work up either affront or anger, only a baffled amusement.

“You should do that more often,” Con told her.

“What?”

“Laugh. You look quite beautiful.”

“Oh.” She hoped the darkness concealed her blush. Otherwise, Con would doubtless tease her about it every time they met.

Except, of course, she would not see him now that the wedding was over. Constantine Moreland didn’t typically frequent the sort of parties Lilah attended with her aunt. He preferred more exciting entertainment. Even when they did attend the same function, Con did his best to avoid her. Her life now would return to its usual pattern. Lilah sighed as she thought of the weeks ahead, paying calls and receiving visitors in her aunt’s parlor.

“What is it?” Con asked. When she glanced at him questioningly, he explained, “You sighed just now. Is something wrong?”

“What? Oh. I didn’t realize I had.” Her cheeks, already pink, flamed. “I was, um, just thinking that things would settle back to normal now that the wedding is done.”

“Yes, it will likely be more boring.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she protested. “I meant, it will be quieter. Calmer. But that’s a good thing. One can rest and relax and, um…”

“Embroider handkerchiefs?” Con suggested, raising an eyebrow.

She glowered. “I’m sure there will be nothing so mundane for you. You’ll be off chasing ghosts or seeking the meaning of Stonehenge.”

“Hopefully I’ll find an adventure or two to pass the time.” He grinned down at her. “Here, now, don’t look so grim.” He smoothed his finger over the lines of her frown, then moved to her cheek, lightly skimming a strand of hair that had escaped its pins.

Self-consciously Lilah moved to pin the stray curl back in place, but Con reached out to stop her. “No, don’t. It’s lovely like that.”

“Like what…a mess?” She forced a bit of tartness into her voice to combat the sudden heat his touch stirred in her.

“I doubt that anything about you is ever a mess.” Con stroked his thumb lazily along her cheekbone. His smile was still there, but different now, no longer amused but warm and inviting. There was a look in his eyes very like the way she’d seen Alex gaze at Sabrina. Dark and a little hazy.

Lilah could not pull her gaze from Con’s. Her breath caught in her throat, and her thoughts went tumbling madly. She definitely should not have drunk that glass of champagne.

Con’s hands went to her waist, tugging her a little closer. “Tell me, Miss Holcutt, would you slap me this time if I kissed you?”

Her heart skipped a beat. She should pull away from him. Toss back a sharp set-down for his boldness. But what came from her mouth was only a whispered, “No, I wouldn’t slap you.”

He bent his head, and she closed her eyes, as if she could hide what she was doing from herself. Con’s lips brushed over hers gently…once, twice. She felt his smile against her lips, then his mouth settled onto hers, his arms gliding around her, pulling her into him.

His kiss was slow and easy and thorough, his tongue stealing into her mouth and setting off a firestorm of pleasurable sensations. It was overwhelming, his kiss as dizzying as the champagne she’d drunk. Lilah was flooded with hunger. Urges she’d never imagined roiled inside her. She had no idea what to do, but she wanted to feel more, have more.

Lilah wasn’t aware when she had put her hands on his arms, but now she dug her fingers into the cloth, holding on. It seemed forever, yet was over all too fast. Con raised his head and stared down at her, his expression caught somewhere between amazement and dismay.

Then his arms tightened around her, crushing her into him, and his mouth returned to hers. This time his kiss wasn’t easy, wasn’t gentle, but, shockingly, Lilah welcomed it. She went up on her toes, her arms wrapping around his neck and her lips answering his with abandon. Her heart slammed in her chest, and her very blood seemed on fire. She felt reckless and wild, utterly unlike herself, and it was glorious.

Con’s hands slid down her back, pressing her into him, and his mouth left hers to kiss her cheek, her jaw, her throat. She shivered at the velvety touch on her sensitive skin. Someone moaned softly, and Lilah realized with a start that the sound had come from her. Con kissed his way downward, reaching the hollow of her throat. His tongue teased around the pearl drop there, tracing a circle. Her abdomen flooded with heat.

Masculine laughter came from the door to the ballroom as three men stepped out onto the terrace, chatting amongst themselves. Lilah froze, the realization of what she was doing stabbing through her haze of passion. Con swung around so that his back was to the men, his body between any onlooker and her.

“Don’t worry,” he murmured. “They can’t see you.”

“No, no…” she said shakily, pulling back from him. What was she doing? Her hand came up to cover her tingling lips. An entirely different heat flowed through her now. She was behaving like the loosest of women—agreeing to slip out onto the dark terrace, letting him kiss her, more than that, kissing him back! “I’m sorry—I shouldn’t—good-bye.”

Lilah slipped around him and hurried back into the ballroom.

Copyright © 2018 by Candace Camp

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