Stephanie Laurens

A Secret Love


April 17, 1820

Morwellan Park, Somerset

Disaster stared her in the face.


Seated at her desk in the library of Morwellan Park, Alathea Morwellan gazed at the letter she held, barely seeing the precise script of her family's agent. The substance of the missive was burned into her brain. Its last paragraph read:

I fear, my dear, that my sentiments concur with yours. I can see no evidence that we have made any mistake.

No mistake. She'd suspected, virtually expected that that would be the case, yet…

Exhaling, Alathea laid the letter down. Her hand shook. A youthful cheer reached her, borne on the breeze wafting through the long windows. She hesitated, then stood and glided to the French windows standing open to the south lawn.

On the rolling expanse separating the terrace from the ornamental lake, her stepbrothers and stepsisters played an exuberant game of catch. Sunlight flashed on one fair head- Alathea's eldest stepbrother, Charlie, leaped high and snatched the ball from the air, denying Jeremy, only ten but always game. Despite his emerging elegance, Charlie, nineteen, was good-naturedly caught up in the game, indulging his juniors, Jeremy and Augusta, just six. Their older sisters, Mary, eighteen, and Alice, seventeen, had also joined in.

The entire household was currently in the throes of preparing to remove to London so Mary and Alice could be introduced to the ton. Nevertheless, both girls threw themselves into the game, ringlets framing innocently happy faces, the serious business of their come-outs in no way dampening their joy in simple pleasures.

A whoop from Charlie signaled a wild throw-the ball flew over all three girls and bounced toward the house. It struck the flags of the path and bounced even higher, clearing the shallow steps to land on the terrace. Two more diminishing bounces, and it tumbled over the library threshold and rolled along the polished boards. Raising her skirt, Alathea placed one foot on the ball, stilling it. She considered it, then looked out to see Mary and Alice racing, laughing and gasping, toward the terrace. Stooping, Alathea scooped up the ball; balancing it on one palm, she strolled out onto the terrace.

Mary and Alice skidded to a halt before the steps, laughing and grinning.

"Me, Allie, me!"

"No! Al-a-the-a! Sweet Allie-me!"

Alathea waited as if weighing her choice while little Augusta, left far in the rear, panted up. She stopped some yards behind the older girls and raised her angel's face to Alathea.

With a grin, Alathea lobbed the ball over the older girls' heads. Open-mouthed, they watched it soar past. With a gurgling laugh, Augusta pounced, grabbed the ball, and raced away down the slope.

Flashing Alathea conspiratorial grins, Mary called after Augusta, Alice cheered, and both set out in pursuit.

Alathea remained on the terrace, the warmth suffusing her owing nothing to the bright sunshine. A movement beneath a large oak caught her eye. Her stepmother, Serena, and her father, the earl, waved from the bench where they sat indulgently watching their children.

Smiling, Alathea returned the wave. Looking back at her stepsiblings, now headed in a wild melee toward the lake, she drew in a long breath, then, lips firming, turned back into the library.

Crossing to the desk, she let her gaze dwell on the tapestries gracing the walls, the paintings in their gilded frames, the leather-bound, gilt-encrusted spines lining the shelves. The long library was one of the features of Morwellan Park, principal seat of the earls of Meredith. Morwellans had occupied the Park for centuries, from long before the earldom's creation in the fourteenth. The present gracious house had been built by her great-grandfather, the grounds expertly landscaped under her grandfather's exacting eye.

Regaining the large carved desk, hers for the last eleven years, Alathea looked at the letter lying on the blotter. Any chance that she would crumple in the face of such adversity as the letter portended was past. Nothing-no one-was going to steal the simple peace she'd sacrificed the last eleven years of her life to secure for her family.

Gazing at Wiggs's letter, she considered the enormity of what she faced, too practical not to recognize the difficulties and dangers. But it wasn't the first time she'd stood on the lip of the abyss and stared ruin-financial and social-in the face.

Picking up the letter, she sat and reread it. It had arrived in reply to an urgent missive from her dispatched post haste to London three days before. Three days before, when her world had, for the second time in her life, been rocked to its foundations.

While dusting her father's room, a maid had discovered a legal document stuffed inside a large vase. Luckily, the girl had had the wit to take the paper to the housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Figgs, who had immediately bustled into the library to lay it before her.

Satisfied she'd missed nothing in Wiggs's reply, Alathea set his letter aside. Her glance strayed to the left desk drawer where the wretched document at the heart of the matter lay. A promissory note. She didn't need to read it again-every last detail was etched in her brain. The note committed the earl of Meredith to pay upon call a sum that exceeded the present total worth of the earldom. In return, the earl would receive a handsome percentage of the profits realized by the Central East Africa Gold Company.

There was, of course, no guarantee such profits would ever materialize, and neither she, nor Wiggs, nor any of his peers, had so much as heard of the Central East Africa Gold Company.

If any good would have come of burning the note, she would happily have built a bonfire on the Aubusson rug, but it was only a copy. Her dear, vague, hopelessly impractical father had, entirely without understanding what he was about, signed away his family's future. Wiggs had confirmed that the note was legally sound and executable, so if the call was made for the amount stipulated, the family would be bankrupt. They would lose not only the minor properties and Morwellan House in London, all still mortgaged to the hilt, but also Morwellan Park, and everything that went with it.

If she wished to ensure that Morwellans remained at Morwellan Park, that Charlie and his sons had their ancestral home intact to inherit, that her stepsisters had their come-outs and the chance to make the marriages they deserved, she was going to have to find some way out of this.

Just as she had before.

Absentmindedly tapping a pencil on the blotter, Alathea gazed unseeing at the portrait of her great-grandfather, facing her down the long length of the room.

This wasn't the first time her father had brought the earldom to the brink of ruin; she'd faced the prospect of abject poverty before. For a gentlewoman reared within the elite circle of the haut ton, the prospect had been-and still was-frightening, all the more so for being somewhat beyond her ken. Abject poverty she had no more than a hazy notion of-she had no wish for either herself or, more importantly, her innocent siblings, to gain any closer acquaintance with the state.

At least, this time, she was more mature, more knowlegeable-better able to deal with the threat. The first time…

Her thoughts flowed back to that afternoon eleven years before when, as she was poised to make her come-out, fate had forced her to stop, draw breath, and change direction. From that day, she'd carried the burden of managing the family's finances, working tirelessly to rebuild the family's fortunes, all the while maintaining an outward show of affluence. She'd insisted the boys go to Eton, and then to Oxford; Charlie would go up for the autumn term in September. She'd scrimped and saved to take Mary and Alice to town for their come-outs, and to have sufficient funds to puff them off in style.

The household was eagerly anticipating removing to London in just a few days. For herself, she'd anticipated savoring a subtle victory over fate when her stepsisters made their curtsies to the ton.

For long moments, Alathea stared down the room, considering, assessing-rejecting. This time, frugality would not serve her cause-no amount of scrimping could amass the amount needed to meet the obligation stipulated in the note. Turning, she pulled open the left drawer. Retrieving the note, she perused it again, carefully evaluating. Considering the very real possibility that the Central East Africa Gold Company was a fraud.

The company had that feel to it-no legitimate enterprise would have cozened her father, patently unversed in business dealings, into committing such a huge sum to a speculative venture, certainly not without some discreet assessment of whether he could meet the obligation. The more she considered, the more she was convinced that neither she nor Wiggs had made any mistake-the Central East Africa Gold Company was a swindle.

She was not at all inclined to meekly surrender all she'd fought for, all she'd spent the last eleven years securing-all her family's future-to feather the nest of a pack of dastardly rogues.

There had to be a way out-it was up to her to find it.

Chapter 1

May 6, 1820


Swirls of mist wreathed Gabriel Cynster's shoulders as he prowled the porch of St. Georges' Church, just off Hanover Square. The air was chill, the gloom within the porch smudged here and there by weak shafts of light thrown by the street lamps.