The Second Seduction of a Lady

 

T
HE
S
ECOND
S
EDUCTION
OF
A
L
ADY

M
IRANDA
N
EVILLE

 

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

An Excerpt from
The Importance of Being Wicked
Chapter One
Chapter Two

About the Author

Also by Miranda Neville

Copyright

About the Publisher

 

C
HAPTER
O
NE

Somerset, England, 1793

I
f not for that one time, that evening of insanity following a week of madness, Eleanor Hardwick would hold an unblemished record for common sense. Luckily no one knew the full extent of her folly. No one except
him
.

The memory of the two weeks that followed still caused her stomach to drop. The waiting, the fear, until the onset of the dull throb that signaled her liberation from the possible consequences of her indiscretion. Many a foolish female must have felt the same way. But while most were relieved not to be with child because they faced nothing but unwed disgrace, Eleanor was happy because it saved her from the necessity of matrimony. She had fetched her women’s cloths, packed half a dozen unopened letters into a neat parcel, and sent the missives back to their sender with a brief, stinging request to contact her no more.

Eleanor believed in common sense with a fervor that bordered on the dogmatic. She did not believe in marriage, a conclusion arrived at through the dispassionate observation of her many friends and relations. Who could possibly admire an institution that allowed a malodorous toad like Sir George Ashdown to impregnate her cousin Sylvia six times in seven years? Or bound together a pair with as little in common as her own parents?

When, at the age of twenty-one, she gained control of an income of five hundred pounds a year from her late mother, she resolved to spend her life in an entirely rational fashion. And if reason led her to lavish a large proportion of that income on personal adornment, who was to argue with her? No husband would ever carp at her milliner’s bills.

For almost a decade she had divided her time between her father’s house and traveling for prolonged visits to those of her relations, their spouses, and offspring. Thus she gained all the enjoyment of domesticity without its undesirable permanent effects. Though not without her share of suitors, she had discouraged them all without regret.

Except one.

The sole occasion she allowed her heart to override her reason had
not
been a success. In fact, she rarely allowed herself to remember it, except on those occasions when she awoke in a state of melancholy, clutching her midriff. She ascribed this foolishness to overindulgence in cheese.

As a result of her rapport with the younger generation, she was much in demand when impetuous youth fell into undesirable company, or in love with unsuitable men. On the whole she found erring children easier to deal with than their frantic parents, confirming her conclusion that marriage did strange things to the adult mind.

In the case of her father’s second cousin, the Honorable Mrs. George Brotherton, it was two marriages. But Eleanor doubted matrimony was responsible for her condition. Such a combination of malice and stupidity must surely be innate. And her two husbands, discovering that the only escape from marriage was death, had chosen that drastic course. Only a certain physical likeness convinced Eleanor that young Caro Brotherton wasn’t a changeling. How a chilly beauty like Elizabeth Brotherton had managed to conceive such a delightful creature was beyond understanding.

“I despair of Caroline,” Mrs. Brotherton said over teacups, the day after Eleanor arrived in Somerset in response to an urgent summons. “Look at her! She is a disgrace.”

Eleanor looked. Caro’s red curls were a little untidy, and down around her shoulders. Perfectly acceptable for a seventeen-year-old who wasn’t yet out. One foot bounced against the leg of her chair, but her hands were busy with an embroidery hoop.

“What are you making, Caro?” Eleanor asked, hoping to draw attention to this ladylike pursuit.

“A pair of slippers for Uncle Camber.”

Eleanor had stepped in a wasps’ nest. Though Mrs. Brotherton had always loved a lord, the Earl of Camber loathed his widowed sister-in-law and never invited her to his estate when Caro made her annual visit. If not for her own fondness for the child, Eleanor would never seek out Elizabeth’s company either.

“I shouldn’t let you go to Camber,” Mrs. Brotherton said with a sniff. “He’s a bad influence.”

“I thought he was virtually bedridden,” Eleanor said, to forestall the furious response on the tip of Caro’s tongue.

“Poor Uncle Camber,” Caro said, obviously struggling for serenity. “His feet get cold.” Then, after an uneasy silence, “Lucy Markham is going to Bath in September to stay with her aunt. She says I can go with her. You must let me go, Mama.”

Caro had never learned how to approach her mother with tact. “Certainly not!” was the predictable reply. “You will wait until next season when you will make your debut under my eye.”

“It’s so unfair! You don’t want me to have any fun.”

“Cousin,” Eleanor said, leaping into her role as peacemaker. “I need some fresh air. If you aren’t too tired, Caro, I’d enjoy your company.”

Caro accepted the escape and the aspersion on her vigor with all the energy of her years. “Yes please, dearest Eleanor! You’re such a nice, fast walker!”

“Fetch your bonnet!” Eleanor spoke too late. Caro had already bolted the room.

“I
’m so glad you are here,” Caro said, once they had escaped the dreary atmosphere of Sedgehill Manor into the lane. “At least with you I may call on our neighbors. Mama doesn’t think any of them are good enough for her. I wish my papa had not been the brother of an earl.”

“Cousin Elizabeth does tend to be just the slightest bit high in the instep.” An outrageous understatement about a woman who would probably address Queen Charlotte herself with condescension. She was well aware that Elizabeth tolerated her only because Eleanor’s father, although a country parson, was nephew to a viscount.

“It’s so unfair!” The eternal complaint of youth and one that in this case Eleanor found justified.

“I have an idea,” she said. “I’m going to London for a month in the autumn. Shall I ask your mother if you can accompany me?”

“Darling, darling Eleanor.” Caro positively bounced with glee. “That would be wonderful.” Then her face fell. “Mama will never say yes.”

“I will try to persuade her. As you may have guessed, she invited me here because she thinks I’m a sensible influence. Let’s prove her right. You must be
very
good.”

“I hate being good! And it won’t work. Nothing I do is ever enough for her. She won’t let me go. She wants to force me to marry a horrid old man.”

“Surely not.”

“She does, I tell you. She’s picked out a marquess.”

“How old is this man?”

“At least thirty!” Caro cried tragically.

“At death’s door!” replied Eleanor, who had herself reached that dread age at her last birthday. “Perhaps, if you are very lucky, you’ll meet a suitable gentleman who is a year or two younger.”

“Don’t tease, Eleanor. I will marry only when I fall in love, and I could never fall in love with such a dull creature.”

In Eleanor’s experience, girls got such ideas from only one source. “Have you been reading novels? I’m surprised Cousin Elizabeth allows it.”

“She doesn’t. Mama wants me to read only improving books. I borrow them from Lucy. I just finished
The Battlements of Adelmante
. Orlando, the most delicious and dashing man, saves Loriana from being drowned in the moat by a ghost.”

“Drowned by a ghost? Fancy that! I must read this remarkable book.”

“And then they fall desperately in love,” she said, peeping sideways at Eleanor, “but their love is
doomed
because Loriana’s cruel guardian wishes her to marry a wicked count!” She gave a blissful sigh, though that was a feeble word to describe an expression that seemed to possess every inch of her slight, muslin-clad body. “I can’t wait to fall in love. Have you ever been in love, Eleanor?”

“Never.” Eleanor wasn’t really lying. She’d only
thought
she was in love for a few days. Once she discovered the truth about Max Quinton, any tender sentiment had vanished from her breast, evaporated into air as though it never existed. Such an insubstantial emotion could not possibly have been true love. “Love is not for me,” she said. “I’m far too sensible.”

Caro accepted the denial with an incredulous shrug. At seventeen, she wasn’t much interested in the affairs of others, especially those as ancient as Eleanor. “I shall never marry without love, not even if Mama locks me in the dungeon.”

“Does Sedgehill Manor have a dungeon? Quite unusual for a house not more than fifty years old.”

“You know what I mean. You are so lucky not to have a mother telling you what to do.”

“As to that, my dear, I do miss my mine, who died when I was even younger than you are.” Because Eleanor believed in encouraging good conduct, even under the most trying of circumstances, she added, “And you would miss yours.”

Caro seized her hand. “I’m sorry, Eleanor. I shouldn’t have said that about your mama.”

“It’s all right. And you are right. I am fortunate to have my own funds and a father so wrapped in his studies he lets me do as I wish. But only,” she continued, seeing a moment for a lesson while she had Caro’s volatile attention, “because I am sensible and he knows I won’t get into trouble.”

“You’ve never done anything foolish in all these years?”

“Never.” Unless one counted losing one’s virtue to a rogue.

“I don’t know how you manage it.”

Eleanor tried to keep from smiling and to instill some common sense into the girl, with advice on the management of implacable parents. She couldn’t flatter herself Caro paid much attention. About a mile from the house, they turned off the lane, climbing a stile into a water meadow. The lazy river glimmered invitingly in the sun, a fisherman forming a picturesque vista on the opposite bank.

Caro ran to the water’s edge and stared. Since her straw bonnet had long since slipped off and trailed down her back, she raised a hand to her brow to ward off the high sun. Eleanor, generally averse to hyperbole, had to admit the angler resembled a young Apollo: slender and lithe, with golden hair ruffled by the breeze. Most improperly dressed, with nothing but an open-necked shirt above his breeches, he flung aside his fishing rod and favored Caro with a dazzling smile.

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