Secrets of Seduction

By: Nicole Jordan
East Sussex, England; September 1816

She had never before pursued a man, but in matters of the heart, sometimes a lady needed to take fate into her own hands.

In the gathering dusk, Lady Skye Wilde peered through her carriage window at the hulking mansion shrouded in fog and drizzling rain. Built two centuries before, Hawkhurst Castle was an enormous edifice of gold-hued stone, complete with turrets. Once magnificent, it looked forsaken now, although faint lights shone in a lower-story window, giving Skye hope that her mission would not be in vain.

The Earl of Hawkhurst needed a bride, and she intended to interview for the position.

In truth, she’d been plotting this moment all summer long, ever since learning of Lord Hawkhurst’s intention to marry again. Now that the moment was at hand, an army of butterflies was waging battle in her stomach.

Skye was keenly aware her entire future could depend on this first meeting.

Before she lost her nerve, she pulled her cloak hood over her fair hair and stepped down from her carriage into the rain. No doubt it was idiotic to purposely get caught in a storm, yet the brewing tempest played well into her scheme to plant herself on the earl’s front doorstep. A downpour increased the odds that he would take pity on her and provide her shelter, perhaps even allow her to stay the night.

An ominous flash of lightning in the near distance warned Skye that she had little time before the worst weather hit. Even so, she hesitated to approach the sweeping stone steps that led up to the massive front door.

She had encountered the earl only once, yet Hawkhurst—known as Hawk to his intimates—was the kind of man no woman ever forgot … or any girl, either. When she was thirteen, she’d fallen head over heels for him and had been heartbroken to learn he was already wed. Then, shortly afterward, he’d suffered the most terrible of tragedies, losing his beloved wife and very young son to a fire here at his family seat.

From her vantage point, Skye couldn’t see the charred remains of the burned rooms. The fire must have started in another wing—

A second bolt of lightning, this one much closer, was followed swiftly by a crash of thunder that startled the already fractious carriage horses. Glancing behind her, Skye called out an order to her coachman to drive the team around to the stables and seek refuge.

“My lady, I dislike leaving you here alone!” he shouted back over the growing bluster of wind and rain.

She appreciated the concern of her loyal servants—two grooms and a coachman—who were more like bodyguards than lackeys. Her brother Quinn insisted they accompany her for protection on her travels, even though she was now three-and-twenty. Skye usually suffered her strapping attendants with good grace, since they allowed her a measure of independence that most unattached young ladies lacked. But now they were decidedly in the way.

“I won’t come to harm!” Skye insisted. “Lord Hawkhurst is a close friend of my aunt. He will not turn me away in a storm.”

At least I trust not, she added to herself. Hawkhurst was known as a great lover of horses and a master horseman. In all likelihood, he would not evict frightened animals from his estate, even if he might want to refuse their human owners.

“If you are certain, my lady—”

Another crack of thunder cut off his sentence.

“Yes, go quickly please, Josiah!”

Just then the heavens opened up, and the drizzle became a torrent of driving rain.

The two grooms hastily climbed onto their rear perch, and the carriage drove off. Skye sprinted for the stone staircase and wondered if she had underestimated the storm’s danger. Her cloak hood barely protected her face as big, stinging drops pelted her tender skin. Quelling a gasp at the cold impact, she ran almost blindly up the steps. By the time she reached the top landing, she was thoroughly drenched.

Between the gloom and the buffeting rain, she could barely make out that the knocker had been removed from the door. She rapped with her knuckles for several long minutes, then pounded with the heel of her hand.

No one answered.

Although half-expecting the door to be locked, she tried admitting herself. The knob turned freely, so she pushed open the door. An instant later it abruptly swung wide, pulling her forward. Skye stumbled over the threshold and would have pitched face-first onto the floor if not for a pair of strong arms saving her.

Skye did gasp then. Held against a broad chest and a very male body, she looked up, her heart pounding. In the enormous entrance hall, the flame of a single wall sconce cast flickering shadows over her savior’s visage.

It was the lord of the manor himself, Morgan Blake, the sixth Earl of Hawkhurst.

Skye caught her breath anew at his stunning masculine beauty: High forehead, chiseled cheekbones, aristocratic nose, sensual lips. And his most striking features: winged black brows above dark-fringed, storm-gray eyes.

He looked more rugged than she remembered, perhaps because of his tousled, overlong raven hair and the stubble roughening his strong jaw. His face held more character as well, and lines of pain that hadn’t been present before. Of course, he was ten years older now, and at four-and-thirty he had seen far more of the dark side of life.

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