Series Sunday

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18334837Stunning sensuality and breathtaking romance mark this dazzling new Legendary Lovers tale from New York Timesbestselling author Nicole Jordan, where an extraordinary beauty teaches a handsome, reclusive “beast” to love again.

The most charming Wilde cousin, Lady Skye has secretly loved the enigmatic Earl of Hawkhurst since girlhood, long before the tragedy that left him scarred both physically and emotionally. When Skye learns that the celebrated hero has returned to England from his self-imposed exile to make a cold marriage of convenience, she brazenly plants herself on his castle doorstep, determined to convince Hawk that she alone is his true mate and destiny.

An elite member of the Guardians of the Sword, Hawk has vowed never again to risk the pain of loving—but that’s before he deals with the most enchanting, annoyingly persistent seductress he’s ever encountered. One night of blazing passion leaves him impossibly torn. Will Hawk choose duty over love, or will he open his heart and let Skye’s healing light penetrate his darkness?

Secrets of Seduction is available on Amazon

Why do you need to read this book? You need to read this book because of Lady Skye. She doesn’t let anything get in the way of what she wants. She is eternally optomistic, and determine to get her way. The excerpt that I included below will give you a snippet of what she’s like.

Excerpt from the author’s website:

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE:

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 doing 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 hit. Even so, she hesitated to approach the sweeping stone steps that
led up to the massive front door.
Actually, 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 nearly fourteen, 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 burnt 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
shelter.”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 almost four-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, while
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 chill 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 before 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 with 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 also,
and lines of pain that hadn’t been present before. But of course, he was ten years oldernow, and at four-and-thirty, he had seen far more of the dark side of life.
Those penetrating eyes still had the same spellbinding effect on her, however. When her
gaze locked with his, heat streaked through Skye, stark and raw, like a bolt of lightning.
He might have felt the same electric flash of fire, for he reached up with one hand and
pushed back the hood of her cloak to reveal her pale gold hair. Frowning, he touched her
face, as if wondering if she were real.
It was a moment of enchantment she could never have anticipated.
Her heart still in her throat, Skye parted her lips but remained mute as she returned his
searching stare. Then Lord Hawkhurst seemed to realize he was holding her. Appearing
reluctant to let her go, he slowly helped her to stand upright.
Disappointment swamped Skye. Being held in his arms was as breathtaking as she’d
dreamed it would be, and she had not wanted his embrace to end. This intimate manner
of meeting was unplanned but much better than she could have hoped for . . . until she
suddenly spied the weapon in his other hand.
He wielded a deadly looking dagger and seemed prepared to use it on her.
Skye swallowed hard before realizing his weapon was the sort of knife used for paring
quill pens.
“My l-lord,” she managed to say with relative calm. “You needn’t defend yourself from
me. I am not a thief or assassin. Had I been, I would not have knocked on your front
door.”
“If not a thief, then who are you?” he asked in a voice that was commanding and
pleasantly deep.
“I am Skye Wilde, the niece of your friend, Lady Isabella Wilde.”
His brows drew together sharply. “Did Bella send you here?”
“Yes . . . I mean, no.”
“Which is it?” He sounded impatient.
“Actually, she did not send me. I came on my own, all the way from London—” Skye
stopped herself. When she was nervous, she became breathless and spoke too rapidly.
“Forgive me, my lord. I chatter on when dangerous gentlemen glare at me and threaten
me with knives.”
His expression softened a measure as he lowered the blade to his side. “Are you daft,
setting out in a storm?”
She hid a smile at his accusation, since she’d just been wondering the same thing.
“When I left home this afternoon, it was not storming. And I don’t believe I am daft,
merely desperate. May I please come in before you ring a peal over my head? Afterward
you may scold me as much as you like.”Hawkhurst made a soft sound of disapproval in his throat, something like a growl, but
stepped back to allow her entrance. As she moved past him, he glanced out at the
darkening courtyard below, which was nearly obscured by rain. “Where is your carriage?”
“I took the liberty of sending it around to your stables. My horses and grooms needed
shelter. I felt certain you would want me to keep my horses safe. Perhaps you should
shut the door,” Skye added sweetly. “Rain is gusting in and flooding your marble floor.”
He stared at her again for a moment, as if not crediting her boldness. Then curtly acting
on her suggestion, he closed the door and blocked out the storm before turning to face
her.
The hall was quieter now, although still echoing dully from sheets of rain lashing the
manor.
Skye smiled up at Lord Hawkhurst. “I do beg your pardon, my lord. We got off on the
wrong foot. May we start afresh? I am Lady Skye Wilde, and I am happy to meet you at
last. Have you not heard of me?”
“Yes, I have heard of you.” He did not look pleased by the fact.
“I thought Aunt Bella might have mentioned me. You and I are practically family.”
He gave her another frowning glance, this one rife with skepticism. “How did you arrive at
that conclusion?”
“Well . . . we are not related by blood, but you and my aunt are such good friends, I feel
as if I know you. And you are acquainted with my elder brother, Quinn Wilde, the Earl of
Traherne. You and I were never officially introduced, but I saw you once a long time ago,
when you and your wife attended a ball at our home, Tallis Court. I was the girl hanging
over the banister, watching the dancers below.”
Even in the dim light, she could see recognition dawn in Hawkhurst’s striking eyes.
“I am flattered that you remember me,” Skye said honestly. “Except for a brief moment,
you paid no attention to me that evening.”
“I feared you might be in need of rescue.”
Skye felt her cheeks warm at the reminder. She’d been watching the glittering company
with her cousin Kate from the gallery above the ballroom. When the devastatingly
handsome Lord Hawkhurst had looked up at her and smiled, her heart had instantly
melted. Stricken with awe, she’d nearly tumbled over the railing. The earl had leapt
closer, prepared to catch her and break her fall if necessary. Fortunately—or
unfortunately, Skye had thought at the time—her cousin’s quick action in grasping her
skirts had saved her from disaster.
Uncomfortable awareness flooded her now. How embarrassing to appear so awkward
with a nobleman she wanted earnestly to impress. This was twice now that she had
almost fallen at his feet.
“I am not usually so clumsy, I promise you.”He did not seem interested in prolonging their discussion. “What brings you here in the
midst of a storm, Lady Skye?”
His abruptness was rather unmannerly, but given her unexpected arrival, she could
forgive him.
“My aunt wrote me a letter of introduction and explained my purpose to you. . . .” Fishing
in her reticule, Skye pulled out a folded letter that was a bit worse for wear and presented
it to him. “Please will you read this?”
Hawkhurst broke the wax seal but barely glanced at the contents, perhaps because it
was difú cult to read in the scant light. When he made to move closer to the wall sconce,
Skye spoke up. “Is there a fire where I may warm myself?”
He hesitated before finally replying. “There is one in my study. Follow me.”
When he strode off across the entrance hall, she hurried to keep up with him and found
herself eyeing his tall, athletic form with admiration. He was dressed informally—white
linen shirt, buff breeches, and riding boots—and the way his clothing clung to his broad
shoulders, lean hips, well-formed buttocks, and muscular thighs emphasized his stark
masculinity. It was brazen to admit, Skye knew, but the intense physical attraction she
felt for Hawkhurst now was much less pure than when she was a mere girl.
She was also brazen to call at his nearly deserted country estate when no one suitable
was present to act as chaperone. Yet to attain her heart’s desire, she needed to be bold
and daring. She would not let the risk of scandal deter her. Courting scandal in their
amorous affairs was a Wilde family legacy, and she was a Wilde, through and through.
When they entered a dark corridor, Skye glanced inside the rooms they passed. The fact
that the elegant manor was damp and musty from disuse was no wonder, considering
that it had been shut up for more than ten years. But the furniture was still shrouded in
holland covers.
“I expected you to have servants to answer your front door,” she commented to the earl’s
back.
“The elderly man who acts as caretaker is hard of hearing and didn’t heed your
pounding.”
“But I understood you arrived here a full week ago. I thought by now you would have tried
to set the castle to rights.”
Only after another pause did he answer her probing remark. “I haven’t yet arranged for a
full-time staff. Some women from the village came today to begin cleaning, but with the
storm approaching, I sent them home before it grew too dark.”
“That was kind of you.”
Hawkhurst made another low sound of dismissal in his throat and kept walking.
“I am grateful that you opened your door to me,” Skye pressed, “although you frightened
me out of my wits, brandishing that knife.””You did not look particularly frightened.”
She had not been—but then she knew the extraordinary sort of man she was dealing
with. “I suppose you have an excuse for your extreme reaction. You can’t help yourself.
You were trained to be suspicious. You were a spy for the Foreign Office for the past
dozen years and more, were you not?”
Hawkhurst halted in his tracks and glanced back at her. “Who told you that?”
“My aunt, of course. She also warned me that you were a determined recluse. But you
could be a trifle more welcoming, for her sake if nothing else.”
His eyebrow shot up at her impertinence. Hawkhurst regarded her for several more
heartbeats, obviously reassessing her.
He must finally have realized that she was attempting to lighten the mood, for her
complaint won her the barest hint of a smile. “You break into my home and then take me
to task?”
“I did not break in,” she pointed out genially. “You admitted me.”
“Much to my regret.
Just then the darkness in the corridor was broken by another lightning flash. When he
continued on his way, Skye followed in his footsteps.
Upon arriving at his study, he allowed her to precede him. To her relief, this room at least
looked habitable. A fire was crackling in the hearth and a low-burning lamp rested on a
massive desk.
“You may sit there by the fire,” he said, pointing to a leather wing chair that was angled
before the hearth.
His invitation seemed slightly grudging, but Skye did not take offense. “Do you mind if I
remove my cloak first? I am chilled to the bone.” Her discomfort was not a lie. Her cloak
was soaked through and her gown was damp at the bodice and sodden at the hem.
Hawkhurst murmured something under his breath that sounded much like, “It serves you
right,” but he stepped closer to aid her.
When he reached out to lift the cloak from her shoulders, Skye’s own breath suddenly
turned ragged at his close proximity. Then, when she handed over the garment,
revealing an elegantly tailored traveling dress of forest green kerseymere beneath, his
gaze dropped to her breasts.
Instinctively she went still as his marvelous eyes traveled over her body in dispassionate
appraisal. She was well aware of her physical attributes and that her feminine
countenance and figure appealed to most men. Usually she had suitors falling at her
feet, declaring themselves in love with her. Yet she had no clue what Hawkhurst was
thinking or feeling.
There was no question about her body’s reaction to him, however. She was not sexuallyexperienced, but the intense fascination she felt for him was most certainly sexual, her
desire that of a grown woman, not merely the love-struck awe of a young girl. But what
he did to her insides was more remarkable. His mere nearness filled her with fluttery
excitement and sweet yearning—a response she had never felt with any man but him.
She had no difficulty picturing Hawkhurst as her husband now, just as she’d done
numerous times in her romantic dreams these past few months. If he were her husband,
though, she could have removed her gown instead of standing here shivering in this
clammy one. If he were her husband, she could have undressed down to her shift and
moved into his arms. Indeed, she could have bared her entire chilled body to him and
shared his warmth. . . .
The alluring image dissolved when he took her dripping cloak and spread it near the
hearth to dry, then went to his desk without another word.
Hawkhurst was clearly displeased to have her in his home, Skye could tell as she
removed her wet gloves. She ought to be intimidated by his surly manner; any normal
young lady would be. But few gentlemen had the power to shake her, perhaps because
she was accustomed to handling the strong-willed men in her family.
She usually was able to bend them to her own will with sweet reason. She suspected in
this case, though, it would take a good deal more than reason to sway the earl. Indeed,
the sheer size of her task daunted her. But if Lord Hawkhurst was looking for a wife, it
might as well be her, Skye judged. At the very least, she wanted to see if they were a
compatible match. And regardless of her romantic hopes, she needed a hero just now,
and he was a genuine hero.
Skye drew a steadying breath to bolster her courage. She had contrived to land on his
doorstep, and now she had to capitalize on the opportunity she had created for herself.
“Will you please read my aunt’s letter, my lord?” she asked.
Obligingly, he turned up the flame on the desk lamp, then held the letter nearer the light.
It was then that Skye really saw the burn scars marring the back of his hands.
A sudden lump formed in her throat. Hawkhurst was still the most beautiful man she had
ever seen, but also the most deeply scarred. Not just on the outside but on the inside, if
her information was correct. After all, he had crawled through fire to save his wife and
young son, futilely as it happened. With his life shattered, he’d exiled himself to a distant
Mediterranean island and spent the past decade engaged in dangerous deeds, not
caring whether he lived or died.
Skye’s heart went out to him. Perhaps that organ was too tender, but as the youngest
Wilde cousin of the current generation, she was known for being the sensitive one, in
addition to being the most mischievous.
Mentally chiding herself for staring at the earl’s scarred hands, she busied herself
spreading her gloves on the hearth. Then she settled into the wing chair and began to
remove the pins from her chignon, since her damp hair would dry more quickly if down.
For a short while as he read, the silence in the study was broken only by rain spitting
against the windowpanes and the occasional snap of a log in the hearth fire.When Hawkhurst absently reached for a snifter that was almost empty, Skye noticed the
crystal decanter half-filled with what appeared to be brandy. Evidently he had been
drinking, which partially explained his morose mood.
It was not surprising that he would be sitting alone here and brooding. She would have
brooded also if she’d had to face the ghosts of her dead family, as he doubtless had
upon his arrival at the castle after a decade of being absent.
In fact, it was his castle that had made Skye wonder if the earl might be her ideal match.
According to her cousin Kate’s matchmaking theory, the five Wilde cousins—Ashton,
Quinn, Jack, Katharine, and Skye—could possibly find true love by mirroring legendary
lovers in history and literature.
Skye hoped that her romance would follow a French fairy tale written nearly a century
ago, where a beautiful young lady had been delivered to a beast whose lair was a
palace.
Of course, Lord Hawkhurst was not a beast in the literal sense, but a brooding, scarred
recluse somewhat fit the role. And this gloomy mansion could be a beast’s lair, Skye
thought with a shiver.
Just then Hawkhurst looked up from the letter. His gaze narrowed on her as she combed
her fingers through her tangled tresses. Then he said rather brusquely, “Lady Isabella’s
missive falls far short of the explanation you promised. She says only that you have a
request to make of me. So what do you want, Lady Skye?”
Skye hesitated, knowing she had to choose her words carefully. Naturally she could not
tell him her true reason for being here for fear he would think she was stalking him. Her
purpose had to remain her secret for now. Therefore, she would employ an entirely
different excuse to ensure her chance to pursue the earl.
“I need you to you to find someone for me.”
“Who?”
“My uncle’s long lost love.”
Hawkhurst appeared dubious. “Why the devil do you think I could help?”
“Because you are an expert at solving puzzles and finding missing people. Some years
ago when Lady Isabella was abducted by a Berber sheik and carried off to the mountains
near Algiers, you found her and rescued her, to her immense gratitude.”
When the earl was silent, Skye offered absently, “I will pay very generously.”
That was obviously the wrong approach, for he shook his head. “My services are not for
hire.”
“Then do it as a favor for my aunt.”
That argument did not appear to sway him either.At his reticence, Skye gave a soft huff of exasperation. “You are a hero, Lord Hawkhurst.
You should want to help me.”
Her claim brought a flash of genuine amusement to his features. “I am no hero.”
“You are indeed. And you belong to a secret league of heroes called the Guardians of
the Sword. In fact, you are the league’s most renowned member.”
His expression suddenly became enigmatic, but his tone revealed his displeasure that so
much had been revealed about him. “I expected more discretion from Bella.”
“You ought not blame her. I was quite persistent.”
That was certainly true. She had quizzed her aunt at great length about every facet of the
earl’s past.
“But don’t fear,” Skye added quickly. “She told me little more than the name of your
alliance of spies. I know, however, that you have a long list of commendable qualities.
You are honorable, supremely clever, and a leader of men. Before the tragedy struck,
you were a devoted husband and father. And since then, you have risked your life
countless times over and saved numerous lives.”
His answer was gruff, almost harsh. “That still does not make me suitable for your task.”
Skye eyed Hawkhurst in frustration. She was not about to admit failure, not when she felt
such great urgency to act. His spy career might still be shrouded in secrecy, but her aunt
had been completely frank about his romantic affairs. Hawkhurst soon intended to wed
the great-niece of his superior and mentor—a marriage of convenience strictly for
political purposes.
He had not begun his courtship yet; he was merely readying his house to receive a new
bride. But given his plans, Skye had little time to discover if they were a match, and if so,
to somehow prevent his betrothal and marriage to another woman.
She was never one to turn away from a challenge, though.
Tamping down her frustration, she offered Hawkhurst her most winning smile. “Just hear
me out, my lord. Please. It is the least you can do, given your friendship with my aunt.”
Leaning back in his chair, he folded his arms over his chest. “Very well, you have you
have minutes.”

Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel

week-to-be-wicked-mm-c-250x402
A Week to Be Wicked is book #2 in the Spindle Cover Series
When a devilish lord and a bluestocking set off on the road to ruin…
Time is not on their side.

Minerva Highwood, one of Spindle Cove’s confirmed spinsters, needs to be in Scotland.
Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne, a rake of the first order, needs to be… anywhere but Spindle Cove.

These unlikely partners have one week
to fake an elopement
to convince family and friends they’re in “love”
to outrun armed robbers
to survive their worst nightmares
to travel four hundred miles without killing each other
All while sharing a very small carriage by day and an even smaller bed by night.

What they don’t have time for is their growing attraction. Much less wild passion. And heaven forbid they spend precious hours baring their hearts and souls.

Suddenly one week seems like exactly enough time to find a world of trouble.
And maybe…just maybe…love.

A Week to be Wicked is available on Amazon

Excerpt

When a girl trudged through the rain at midnight to knock at the Devil’s door, the Devil should at least have the depravity—if not the decency—to answer.Minerva gathered the edges of her cloak with one hand, weathering another cold, stinging blast of wind. She stared in desperation at the closed door, then pounded it with the flat of her fist.

“Lord Payne,” she shouted, hoping her voice would carry through the thick oak planks. “Do come to the door! It’s Miss Highwood.” After a moment’s pause, she clarified, “Miss Minerva Highwood.”

Rather nonsensical, that she needed to state just which Miss Highwood she was. From Minerva’s view, it ought to be obvious. Her younger sister, Charlotte, was an exuberant yet tender fifteen years of age. And the eldest of the family, Diana, possessed not only angelic beauty, but the disposition to match. Neither of them were at all the sort to slip from bed at night, steal down the back stairs of the rooming house, and rendezvous with an infamous rake.

But Minerva was different. She’d always been different. Of the three Highwood sisters, she was the only dark-haired one, the only bespectacled one, the only one who preferred sturdy lace-up boots to silk slippers, and the only one who cared one whit about the difference between sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.

The only one with no prospects, no reputation to protect.

Diana and Charlotte will do well for themselves, but Minerva? Plain, bookish, distracted, awkward with gentlemen. In a word, hopeless.

The words of her own mother, in a recent letter to their cousin. To make it worse, Minerva hadn’t discovered this description by snooping through private correspondence. Oh, no. She’d transcribed the words herself, penning them at Mama’s dictation.

Truly. Her own mother.

The wind caught her hood and whisked it back. Cold rain pelted her neck, adding injury to insult.

Swiping aside the hair matted to her cheek, Minerva stared up at the ancient stone turret—one of four that comprised the Rycliff Castle keep. Smoke curled from the topmost vent.

She raised her fist again, pounding at the door with renewed force. “Lord Payne, I know you’re in there.”

Vile, teasing man.

Minerva would root herself to this spot until he let her in, even if this cold spring rain soaked her to the very marrow. She hadn’t climbed all this distance from the village to the castle, slipping over mossy outcroppings and tracing muddy rills in the dark, just to trudge the same way back home, defeated.

However, after a solid minute of knocking to no avail, the fatigue of her journey set in, knotting her calf muscles and softening her spine. Minerva slumped forward. Her forehead met wood with a dull thunk. She kept her fist lifted overhead, beating on the door in an even, stubborn rhythm. She might very well be plain, bookish, distracted, and awkward—but she was determined. Determined to be acknowledged, determined to be heard.

Determined to protect her sister, at any cost.

Open, she willed. Open. Open. Op—

The door opened. Swiftly, with a brisk, unforgiving whoosh.

“For the love of tits, Thorne. Can’t it wait for—”

“Ack.” Caught off balance, Minerva stumbled forward. Her fist rapped smartly against—not the door, but a chest.

Lord Payne’s chest. His masculine, muscled, shirtless chest, which proved only slightly less solid than a plank of oak. Her blow landed square on his flat, male nipple, as though it were the Devil’s own door-knocker.

At least this time, the Devil answered.

“Well.” The dark word resonated through her arm. “You’re not Thorne.”

“Y-you’re not clothed.” And I’m touching your bare chest. Oh. . . Lord.

The mortifying thought occurred to her that he might not be wearing trousers either. She righted herself. As she removed her spectacles with chilled, trembling fingers, she caught a reassuring smudge of dark wool below the flesh-colored blur of his torso. She huffed a breath on each of the two glass discs connected by brass, wiped the mist from them with a dry fold of her cloak lining, and then replaced them on her face.

He was still half naked. And now, in perfect focus. Devious tongues of firelight licked over every feature of his handsome face, defining him.

“Come in, if you mean to.” He winced at a blast of frost-tipped wind. “I’m shutting the door, either way.”

She stepped forward. The door closed behind her with a heavy, finite sound.

Minerva swallowed hard.

“I must say, Melinda. This is rather a surprise.”

“My name’s Minerva.”

“Yes, of course.” He cocked his head. “I didn’t recognize your face without the book in front of it.”

She exhaled, letting her patience stretch. And stretch. Until it expanded just enough to accommodate a teasing rake with a sieve-like memory. And stunningly well-defined shoulders.

“I’ll admit,” he said, “this is hardly the first time I’ve answered the door in the middle of night and found a woman waiting on the other side. But you’re certainly the least expected one yet.” He sent her lower half an assessing look. “And the most muddy.”

She ruefully surveyed her mud-caked boots and bedraggled hem. A midnight seductress she was not. “This isn’t that kind of visit.”

“Give me a moment to absorb the disappointment.”

“I’d rather give you a moment to dress.” Minerva crossed the round chamber of windowless stone and went straight for the hearth. She took her time tugging loose the velvet ties of her cloak, then draped it over the room’s only armchair.

Payne hadn’t wasted the entirety of his months here in Spindle Cove, it seemed. Someone had put a great deal of work into transforming this stone silo into a warm, almost comfortable home. The original stone hearth had been cleaned and restored to working order. In it blazed a fire large and fierce enough to do a Norman warrior proud. In addition to the upholstered armchair, the circular room contained a wooden table and stools. Simple, but well made.

No bed.

Strange. She swiveled her gaze. Didn’t an infamous rake need a bed?

Finally, she looked up. The answer hovered overhead. He’d fashioned a sort of sleeping loft, accessible by a ladder. Rich drapes concealed what she assumed to be his bed. Above that, the stone walls spiraled into black, cavernous nothingness.

Minerva decided she’d given him ample time to find a shirt and make himself presentable. She cleared her throat and slowly turned. “I’ve come to ask—”

He was still half-naked.

He had not used the time to make himself presentable. He’d taken the chance to pour a drink. He stood in profile, making scrunched faces into a wineglass to assess its cleanliness.

“Wine?” he asked.

She shook her head. Thanks to his indecent display, a ferocious blush was already burning its way over her skin. Up her throat, over her cheeks, up to her hairline. She hardly needed to throw wine on the flames.

As he poured a glass for himself, she couldn’t help but stare at his leanly muscled torso, so helpfully limned by firelight. She’d been used to thinking him a devil, but he had the body of a god. A lesser one. His wasn’t the physique of a hulking, over-muscled Zeus or Poseidon, but rather a lean, athletic Apollo or Mercury. A body built not to bludgeon, but to hunt. Not to lumber, but to race. Not to overpower unsuspecting naiads where they bathed, but to . . .

Seduce.

He glanced up. She looked away.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” she said.

“You didn’t wake me.”

“Truly?” She frowned at him. “Then . . . for as long as it took you to answer the door, you might have put on some clothes.”

With a devilish grin, he indicated his trousers. “I did.”

Well. Now her cheeks all but caught fire. She dropped into the armchair, wishing she could disappear into its seams.

For God’s sake, Minerva, take hold of yourself. Diana’s future is at stake.

Setting the wine on the table, he moved to some wooden shelves that seemed to serve as his wardrobe. To the side, a row of hooks supported his outerwear. A red officer’s coat, for the local militia he led in the Earl of Rycliff’s absence. A few finely tailored, outrageously expensive-looking topcoats from Town. A greatcoat in charcoal-gray wool.

He passed over all these, grabbed a simple lawn shirt, and yanked it over his head. Once he’d thrust his arms through the sleeves, he held them out to either side for her appraisal. “Better?”

Not really. The gaping collar still displayed a wide view of his chest—only with a lascivious wink instead of a frank stare. If anything, he looked more indecent. Less of an untouchable, chiseled god and more of a raffish pirate king.

“Here.” He took the greatcoat from its hook and brought it to her. “It’s dry, at least.”

Once he’d settled the coat over her lap, he pressed the glass of wine into her hand. A signet ring flashed on his little finger, shooting gold through the glass’s stem.

“No arguments. You’re shivering so hard, I can hear your teeth chatter. The fire and coat help, but they can’t warm you inside.”

Minerva accepted the glass and took a careful sip. Her fingers did tremble, but not entirely from the cold.

He pulled up a stool, sat on it, and fixed her with an expectant look. “So.”

“So,” she echoed, stupidly.

Her mother was right in this respect. Minerva considered herself a reasonably intelligent person, but good heavens . . . handsome men made her stupid. She grew so flustered around them, never knew where to look or what to say. The reply meant to be witty and clever would come out sounding bitter or lame. Sometimes a teasing remark from Lord Payne’s quarter quelled her into dumb silence altogether. Only days later, while she was banging away at a cliff face with a rock hammer, would the perfect retort spring to mind.

Remarkable. The longer she stared at him now, the more she could actually feel her intelligence waning. A day’s growth of whiskers only emphasized the strong cut of his jaw. His mussed brown hair had just a hint of roguish wave. And his eyes . . . He had eyes like Bristol diamonds. Small round geodes, halved and polished to a gleam. An outer ring of flinty hazel enclosed cool flashes of quartz. A hundred crystalline shades of amber and gray.

She squeezed her eyes shut. Enough dithering. “Do you mean to marry my sister?”

Seconds passed. “Which one?”

“Diana,” she exclaimed. “Diana, of course. Charlotte being all of fifteen.”

He shrugged. “Some men like a young bride.”

“Some men have sworn off marriage entirely. You told me you were one of them.”

“I told you that? When?”

“Surely you remember. That night.”

He stared at her, obviously nonplussed. “We had ‘a night’?”

Not how you’re thinking.” Months ago now, she’d confronted him in the Summerfield gardens about his scandalous indiscretions and his intentions toward her sister. They’d clashed. Then they’d somehow tangled—bodily—until a few cutting insults severed the knot.

Curse her scientific nature, so relentlessly observant. Minerva resented the details she’d gleaned in those moments. She did not need to know that his bottom waistcoat button was exactly in line with her fifth vertebra, or that he smelled faintly of leather and cloves. But even now, months later, she couldn’t seem to jettison the information.

Especially not when she sat huddled in his greatcoat, embraced by borrowed warmth and the same spicy, masculine scent.

Naturally, he’d forgotten the encounter entirely. No surprise. Most days, he couldn’t even remember Minerva’s name. If he spoke to her at all, it was only to tease.

“Last summer,” she reminded him, “you told me you had no intentions of proposing to Diana. Or anyone. But today, gossip in the village says different.”

“Does it?” He twisted his signet ring. “Well, your sister is lovely and elegant. And your mother’s made no secret that she’d welcome the match.”

Minerva curled her toes in her boots. “That’s putting it mildly.”

Last year, the Highwoods had come to this seaside village for a summer holiday. The sea air was supposed to improve Diana’s health. Well, Diana’s health had long been improved and summer was long gone, yet the Highwoods remained—all because of Mama’s hopes for a match between Diana and this charming viscount. So long as Lord Payne was in Spindle Cove, Mama would not hear of returning home. She’d even developed an uncharacteristic streak of optimism—each morning declaring as she stirred her chocolate, “I feel it, girls. Today is the day he proposes.”

And though Minerva knew Lord Payne to be the worst sort of man, she had never found it in herself to object. Because she loved it here. She didn’t want to leave. In Spindle Cove, she finally . . . belonged.

Here, in her own personal paradise, she explored the rocky, fossil-studded coast free from care or censure, cataloging findings that could set England’s scientific community on its ear. The only thing that kept her from being completely happy was Lord Payne’s presence—and through one of life’s strange ironies, his presence was the very reason she was able to stay.

There’d seemed no harm in allowing Mama to nurse hopes of a proposal from his lordship’s quarter. Minerva had known for certain a proposal wasn’t coming.

Until this morning, when her certainty crumbled.

“This morning, I was in the All Things shop,” she began. “I usually ignore Sally Bright’s gossip, but today . . .” She met his gaze. “She said you’d given directions for your mail to be forwarded to London, after next week. She thinks you’re leaving Spindle Cove.”

“And you concluded that this means I’ll marry your sister.”

“Well, everyone knows your situation. If you had two shillings to rub together, you’d have left months ago. You’re stranded here until your fortune’s released from trust on your birthday, unless . . .” She swallowed hard. “Unless you marry first.”

“That’s all true.”

She leaned forward in her chair. “I’ll leave in a heartbeat, if you’ll only repeat your words to me from last summer. That you have no intentions toward Diana.”

“But that was last summer. It’s April now. Is it so inconceivable that I might have changed my mind?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” He snapped his fingers. “I know. You think I don’t possess a mind to change. Is that the sticking point?”

She sat forward in her chair. “You can’t change your mind, because you haven’t changed. You’re a deceitful, insincere rake who flirts with unsuspecting ladies by day, then takes up with other men’s wives by night.”

He sighed. “Listen, Miranda. Since Fiona Lange left the village, I haven’t—”

Minerva held up a hand. She didn’t want to hear about his affaire with Mrs. Lange. She’d heard more than enough from the woman herself, who’d fancied herself a poetess. Minerva wished she could scrub her mind of those poems. Ribald, rhapsodic odes that exhausted every possible rhyme for “quiver” and “bliss.”

“You can’t marry my sister,” she told him, willing firmness to her voice. “I simply won’t allow it.”

As their mother was so fond of telling anyone who’d listen—Diana Highwood was exactly the sort of young lady who could set her cap for a handsome lord. But Diana’s external beauty dulled in comparison to her sweet, generous nature and the quiet courage with which she’d braved illness all her life.

Certainly, Diana could catch a viscount. But she shouldn’t marry this one.

“You don’t deserve her,” she told Lord Payne.

“True enough. But none of us get what we truly deserve in this life. Where would God’s sport be in that?” He took the glass from her hand and drew a leisurely sip of wine.

“She doesn’t love you.”

“She doesn’t dislike me. Love’s hardly required.” Leaning forward, he propped an arm on his knee. “Diana would be too polite to refuse. Your mother would be overjoyed. My cousin would send the special license in a trice. We could be married this week. You could be calling me ‘brother’ by Sunday.”

No. Her whole body shouted the rejection. Every last corpuscle.

Throwing off the borrowed greatcoat, she leaped to her feet and began pacing the carpet. The wet folds of her skirt tangled as she strode. “This can’t happen. It cannot. It will not.” A little growl forced its way through her clenched teeth.
She balled her hands in fists. “I have twenty-two pounds saved from my pin money. That, and some change. It’s yours, all of it, if you promise to leave Diana alone.”

“Twenty-two pounds?” He shook his head. “Your sisterly sacrifice is touching. But that amount wouldn’t keep me in London a week. Not the way I live.”

She bit her lip. She’d expected as much, but she’d reasoned it couldn’t hurt to try a bribe first. It would have been so much easier.

She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. This was it—her last chance to dissuade him. “Then run away with me instead.”

After a moment’s stunned pause, he broke into hearty laughter.

She let the derisive sounds wash over her and simply waited, arms crossed. Until his laughter dwindled, ending with a choked cough.

“Good God,” he said. “You’re serious?”

“Perfectly serious. Leave Diana alone, and run away with me.”

He drained the wineglass and set it aside. Then he cleared his throat and began, “That is brave of you, pet. Offering to wed me in your sister’s stead. But truly, I—”

“My name is Minerva. I’m not your pet. And you’re deranged if you think I’d ever marry you.”

“But I thought you just said—”

“Run away with you, yes. Marry you?” She made an incredulous noise in her throat. “Please.”

He blinked at her.

“I can see you’re baffled.”

“Oh, good. I would have admitted as much, but I know what pleasure you take in pointing out my intellectual shortcomings.”

Rummaging through the inside pockets of her cloak, she located her copy of the scientific journal. She opened it to the announcement page and held it out for his examination. “There’s to be a meeting of the Royal Geological Society at the end of this month. A symposium. If you’ll agree to come with me, my savings should be enough to fund our journey.”

“A geology symposium.” He flicked a glance at the journal. “This is your scandalous midnight proposal. The one you trudged through the cold, wet dark to make. You’re inviting me to a geology symposium, if I leave your sister alone.”

“What were you expecting me to offer? Seven nights of wicked, carnal pleasure in your bed?”

She’d meant it as a joke, but he didn’t laugh. Instead, he eyed her sodden frock.

Minerva went lobster red beneath it. Curse it. She was forever saying the wrong thing.

“I’d have found that offer more tempting,” he said.

Truly? She bit her tongue to keep from saying it aloud. How lowering, to admit how much his offhand comment thrilled her. I’d prefer your carnal pleasures to a lecture about dirt. High compliment indeed.

“A geology symposium,” he repeated to himself. “I should have known there’d be rocks at the bottom of this.”

“There are rocks at the bottom of everything. That’s why we geologists find them so interesting. At any rate, I’m not tempting you with the symposium itself. I’m tempting you with the promise of five hundred guineas.”

Now she had his attention. His gaze sharpened. “Five hundred guineas?”

“Yes. That’s the prize for the best presentation. If you take me there and help present my findings to the Society, you can keep it all. Five hundred guineas would be sufficient to keep you drunk and debauched in London until your birthday, I should hope?”

He nodded. “With a bit of judicious budgeting. I might have to hold off on new boots, but one must make some sacrifices.” He came to his feet, confronting her face to face. “Here’s the wrinkle, however. How could you be certain of winning the prize?”

“I’ll win. I could explain my findings to you in detail, but a great many polysyllabic words would be involved. I’m not sure you’re up to them just now. Suffice it to say, I’m certain.”

He gave her a searching look, and Minerva marshaled the strength to hold it. Level, confident, unblinking.

After a moment, his eyes warmed with an unfamiliar glimmer. Here was an emotion she’d never seen from him before.

She thought it might be . . . respect.

“Well,” he said. “Certainty becomes you.”

Her heart gave a queer flutter. It was the nicest thing he’d ever said to her. She thought it might be the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her.

Certainty becomes you.

And suddenly, things were different. The ounce of wine she’d swallowed unfurled in her belly, warming and relaxing her. Melting away her awkwardness. She felt comfortable in her surroundings, and more than a little worldly. As though this were the most natural thing in the world, to be having a midnight conversation in a turret with a half-dressed rake.

She settled languidly into the armchair and raised her hands to her hair, finding and plucking loose her few remaining pins. With slow, dreamy motions, she finger-combed the wet locks and arranged them about her shoulders, the better to dry evenly.

He stood and watched her for a moment. Then he went to pour more wine.

A sensuous ribbon of claret swirled into the glass. “Mind, I’m not agreeing to this scheme. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But just for the sake of argument, how did you see this proceeding, exactly? One morning, we’d just up and leave for London together?”

“No, not London. The symposium is in Edinburgh.”

“Edinburgh.” Bottle met table with a clunk. “The Edinburgh in Scotland.”

She nodded.

“I thought you said this was the Royal Geological Society.”

“It is.” She waved the journal at him. “The Royal Geological Society of Scotland. Didn’t you know? Edinburgh’s where all the most interesting scholarship happens.”

Crossing back to her, he peered at the journal. “For God’s sake, this takes place barely a fortnight from now. Marietta, don’t you realize what a journey to Scotland entails? You’re talking about two weeks’ travel, at the minimum.”

“It’s four days from London on the mail coach. I’ve checked.”

“The mail coach? Pet, a viscount does not travel on the mail coach.” He shook his head, sitting across from her. “And how is your dear mother going to take this news, when she finds you’ve absconded to Scotland with a scandalous lord?”

“Oh, she’ll be thrilled. So long as one of her daughters marries you, she won’t be particular.” Minerva eased her feet from her wet, muddy boots and drew her legs up beneath her skirts, tucking her chilled heels under her backside. “It’s perfect, don’t you see? We’ll stage it as an elopement. My mother won’t raise any protest, and neither will Lord Rycliff. He’ll be only too happy to think you’re marrying at last. We’ll travel to Scotland, present my findings, collect the prize. Then we’ll tell everyone it simply didn’t work out.”

The more she explained her ideas, the easier the words sprang to her lips and the more excited she grew. This could work. It could really, truly work.

“So you’ll just return to Spindle Cove unmarried, after weeks of travel with me? Don’t you realize you’d be . . .”

“Ruined in good society? I know.” She looked into the roaring fire. “I’m willing to accept that fate. I had no desire for a Society marriage, anyhow.” No hopes of one, to put it finely. She didn’t relish the thought of scandal and gossip. But could it really be so much worse to be cut off from fashionable society, than to feel forever squeezed to its margins?

“But what of your sisters? They’ll be tainted by association.”

His remark gave her pause. It wasn’t that she hadn’t thought about this possibility. To the contrary, she’d considered it very carefully.

“Charlotte has years before her debut,” she said. “She can weather a bit of scandal. And as for Diana . . . sometimes I think the kindest thing I could do for my sister is ruin her chances of making a ‘good’ marriage. Then she might make a loving one.”

He sipped his wine thoughtfully. “Well, I’m glad you’ve worked all this out to your satisfaction. You have no compunction ruining your reputation, nor those of your sisters. But have you given a moment’s thought to mine?”

“To your what? Your reputation?” She laughed. “But your reputation is terrible.”

His cheeks colored, slightly. “I don’t know that it’s terrible.”

She put her left forefinger to her right thumb. “Point the first. You’re a shameless rake.”

“Yes.” He drew out the word.

She touched her index finger. “Point the second. Your name is synonymous with destruction. Bar fights, scandals . . . literal explosions. Wherever you go, mayhem follows.”

“I don’t really try at that part. It just . . . happens.” He rubbed a hand over his face.

“And yet you worry this scheme would tarnish your reputation?”

“Of course.” He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. He gestured with the hand holding the wineglass. “I’m a lover of women, yes.” Then he lifted his empty hand. “And yes, I seem to break everything I touch. But thus far I’ve succeeded in keeping the two proclivities separate, you see. I sleep with women and I ruin things, but I’ve never yet ruined an innocent woman.”

“Seems like a mere oversight on your part.”

He chuckled. “Perhaps. But it’s not one I mean to remedy.”

His eyes met hers, unguarded and earnest. And a strange thing happened. Minerva believed him. This was one snag she never would have considered. That he might object on principle. She hadn’t dreamed he possessed a scruple to offend.

But he did, evidently. And he was baring it to her, in an attitude of confidence. As though they were friends, and he trusted her to understand.

Something had changed between them, in the ten minutes since she’d pounded on his door.

She sat back in the chair, regarding him. “You are a different person at night.”

“I am,” he agreed simply. “But then, so are you.”

She shook her head. “I’m always this person, inside. It’s just . . .” Somehow, I can never manage to be this person with you. The harder I try, the more I get in my own way.

“Listen, I’m honored by your invitation, but this excursion you suggest can’t happen. I’d return looking like the worst sort of seducer and cad. And justly so. Having absconded with, then callously discarded, an innocent young lady?”

“Why couldn’t I be the one to discard you?”

A little chuckle escaped him. “But who would ever believe—”

He cut off his reply. A moment too late.

“Who would ever believe that,” she finished for him. “Who indeed.”

Cursing, he set aside the wineglass. “Come now. Don’t take offense.”

Ten minutes ago, she would have expected him to laugh. She would have been prepared for his derision, and she wouldn’t have allowed him to see how it hurt. But things had changed. She’d accepted his coat and his wine. More than that, his honesty. She’d let down her guard. And now this.

It cut her deep.

Her eyes stung. “It’s unthinkable. I know that’s what you’re saying. What everyone would say. It’s inconceivable that a man like you could be in—” She swallowed. “Could be taken with a girl like me.”

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Of course you did. It’s preposterous. Laughable. The idea that you might want me, and I might spurn you? I’m plain. Bookish, distracted, awkward. Hopeless.” Her voice broke. “In a geologic age, no one would believe it.”

She wriggled her feet into her boots. Then she pushed to her feet and reached for her cloak.

He rose and reached for her hand. She pulled away, but not fast enough. His fingers closed around her wrist.

“They would believe it,” he said. “I could make them believe it.”

“You horrid, teasing man. You can’t even remember my name.” She wrestled his grip.

He tightened it. “Minerva.”

Her body went still. Her breath burned in her lungs, as though she’d been fighting her way through waist-deep snow.

“Listen to me now,” he said, smooth and low. “I could make them believe it. I’m not going to do so, because I think this scheme of yours is a spectacularly bad idea. But I could. If I chose, I could have all Spindle Cove—all England—convinced that I’m utterly besotted with you.”

She sniffed. “Please.”

He smiled. “No, truly. It would be so easy. I’d begin by studying you, when you aren’t aware of it. Stealing glances when you’re lost in thought, or when your head’s bent over a book. Admiring the way that dark, wild hair always manages to escapes its pins, tumbling down your neck.” With his free hand, he caught a damp strand of her hair in his fingertips and smoothed it behind her ear. Then he brushed a light touch over her cheek. “Noting the warm glow of your skin, where the sun has kissed it. And these lips. Damn. I think I’d have to develop quite a fascination with your lips.”

His thumb hovered over her mouth, teasing her with possibilities. She ached for his touch, until she was miserable with it. This . . . unwanted wanting.

“It wouldn’t take long. Soon everyone around us would take note of my interest,” he said. “They’d believe my attraction to you.”

“You’ve been mercilessly teasing me for months now. No one would forget that.”

“All part of the infatuation. Don’t you know? A man might engage in flirtation with disinterest, even disdain. But he never teases without affection.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You should. Others would.” He placed his hands on her shoulders. His gaze swept her body from boots to unbound hair. “I could have them all believing I’m consumed by a savage, visceral passion for this enchantress with raven’s-wing hair and sultry lips. That I admire her fierce loyalty to her sisters, and her brave, resourceful spirit. That I’m driven wild by hints of a deep, hidden passion that escape her sometimes, when she ventures out of her shell. ”

His strong hands moved to frame her face. His Bristol-diamond eyes held hers. “That I see in her a rare, wild beauty that’s been overlooked, somehow, by other men. And I want it. Desperately. All for myself. Oh, I could have them believing it all.”

The rich, deep flow of words had worked some kind of spell on her. She stood transfixed, unable to move or speak.

It’s not real, she reminded herself. None of these words mean a thing.

But his caress was real. Real, and warm, and tender. It could mean too much, if she let it. Caution told her to pull away.

Instead, she placed a light, trembling touch to his shoulder. Foolish hand. Foolish fingers.

“If I wished,” he murmured, drawing her close and tilting her face to his, “I could convince everyone that the true reason I’ve remained in Spindle Cove—months past what should have been my breaking point—has nothing to do with my cousin or my finances.” His voice went husky. “That it’s simply you, Minerva.” He caressed her cheek, so sweetly her heart ached. “That it’s always been you.”

His eyes were sincere, unguarded. No hint of irony in his voice. He almost seemed to have convinced himself.

Her heart pounded in her chest with violent force. That mad, hammering beat was all she could hear.

Until another sound intruded.

Laughter. A woman’s laughter. Trickling down from above, like a cascade of freezing water. A brisk, dousing shock.

Oh God.

“Bloody hell.” He looked up, to the sleeping loft.

Minerva followed his gaze. From behind the draped bed hangings, the unseen woman laughed again. Laughed at her.

Oh God. Oh God.

How could she have been so stupid? Naturally, he wasn’t alone. He’d all but told her as much. He’d taken forever to open the door, but he hadn’t been sleeping. He’d paused first to . . .

To put on trousers.

Oh God oh God oh God.

The whole time. Whoever she was up there, she’d been listening the whole time.

Minerva groped numbly for her cloak, jerking it on with shaking fingers. The fire’s smoky heat was suddenly cloying and thick. Suffocating. She had to leave this place. She was going to be ill.

“Wait,” he said, following her to the door. “It’s not how it looks.”

She cut him a freezing glare.

“Very well, it’s mostly how it looks. But I swear, I’d forgotten she was even here.”

She ceased struggling with the door latch. “And that’s supposed to make me think better of you?”

“No.” He sighed. “It’s supposed to make you think better of you. That’s all I meant. To make you feel better.”

Amazing, then, how with that one remark, he made a mortifying situation thirteen times worse.

“I see. Normally you reserve the insincere compliments for your lovers. But you thought to take on a charity case.” He started to reply, but she cut him off. She glanced up at the loft. “Who is she?”

“Does it matter?”

“Does it matter?” She wrenched the door open. “Good Lord. Are women so interchangeable and faceless to you? You just . . . lose track of them under the bed cushions, like pennies? I can’t believe I—”

A hot tear spilled down her cheek. She hated that tear. Hated that he’d seen it. A man like this wasn’t worth weeping over. It was just . . . for that moment by the fire, after years of being overlooked, she’d finally felt noticed.

Appreciated.

Wanted.

And it had all been a lie. A ridiculous, laughable joke.

He pulled on his greatcoat. “Let me see you home, at least.”

“Stay back. Don’t come near me, or my sister.” She held him off with a hand as she backed through the door. “You are the most deceitful, horrid, shameless, contemptible man I have ever had the displeasure to know. How do you sleep at night?”

His reply came just as she banged the door closed.

“I don’t.”

 

 

Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!

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12741888Three young heirs, imprisoned by an unscrupulous uncle, escaped—to the sea, to the streets, to faraway battle—awaiting the day when they would return to reclaim their birthright.

Once upon a time, he was Lord Tristan Easton—now he is Crimson Jack, a notorious privateer beholden to none, whose only mistress is the sea. But all that will change when exquisite Lady Anne Hayworth hires his protection on a trip into danger and seduction. . .

Desperation brought Anne to the bronzed, blue-eyed buccaneer. But after the Captain demands a kiss as his payment, desire will keep her at his side. She has never known temptation like this—but to protect her heart, she knows she must leave him behind. Yet Tristan cannot easily forget the beauty—and when they meet again in a London ballroom, he vows he won’t lose her a second time, as fiery passion reignited takes them into uncharted waters that could lead the second lost lord home

Why do you need to read this book?

I loved the character of Tristan! He’s had a hard life – separated from his brothers at an early age, and somehow he becomes the wonderful man that he is! One more book to this series and I’m looking forward to it!

Lord of Temptation is available on Amazon

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9899758Book 3 in London’s Greatest Lovers Series

Renowned for his bedchamber prowess,Ransom Seymour, the Duke of Ainsley,owes a debt to a friend. But the payment expected is most shocking, even to an unrepentant rake—for he’s being asked to provide his friend’s exquisite wife with what she most dearly covets: a child.

Lady Jayne Seymour, Marchioness of Walfort,is furious that such a scandalous agreement would be made. If she acquiesces, there must be rules: no kissing . . . and, certainly,no pleasure.

But unexpected things occur with the surprisingly tender duke—especially once Lady Jayne discovers the rogue can make her dream again . . . and Ransom realizes he’s found the one woman he truly cannot live without.

Why do you need to read this book?

I loved this book, and didn’t love this book. It has a moral dilemma that is difficult to read, but oh so rewarding if you finish to the end. Read it!

Waking Up With The Duke is available on Amazon

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7788596 As the black sheep second son of an earl, Stephen Lyons has gained a reputation in the art of seduction, but when his wicked ways result in scandal, he enlists in the army to redeem himself. On the battlefield, he proves courageous…until he is seriously wounded. Returning home to recover, he discovers he can’t the angelic beauty who arrives at his doorstep, his babe nestled in her arms.

Mercy Dawson will risk everything to protect the son of the dashing soldier she once knew and admired. When Stephen offers to do the honorable thing, she is determined that London’s most notorious gentleman will desire her and no other. But Mercy fears that what began as an innocent deception could destroy her dreams and their blossoming love if Stephen ever learns the scandalous truth…

 

Why do you need to read this book?

I think that Lorraine Heath has managed to create two equally outstanding characters in this book. Stephen Lynons has been damaged in the war. He used to be quite the rake, but now he is significantly damaged and trying to recover. Mercy is a woman who tries to do the honorable thing – bringing a baby back to it’s family, and ends up doing another honorable thing – healing Stephen. I loved this book!

Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman is available on Amazon

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231956_origFrannie Darling was once a child of London’s roughest streets, surrounded by petty thieves, pickpockets, and worse. But though she survived this harsh upbringing to become a woman of incomparable beauty, Frannie wants nothing to do with the men who lust for her, the rogues who frequent the gaming hall where she works. She can take care of herself and feels perfectly safe on her own–safe that is until he strides into her world, and once again it becomes a very dangerous place indeed.

To bed her but not to wed her. That’s what Sterling Mabry, the 8th Duke of Greystone, wants. But Frannie abhors arrogant aristocrats interested only in their own pleasure. As the devilish duke sets out to seduce her, he is pulled into the dangerous world that calls to Frannie. But he harbors a secret that could put her very life at risk. And as the lovely lady steals his heart as easily as she might pick a pocket, he realizes that the only way to keep her safe is to set her free.

But at what cost to them both?

Why do you need to read this book?

By this point, I hope that you have read Between the Devil & Desire. If you have you will have come to love the character of Jack Dodger. Frannie is just as lovable! She’s smart, she’s independent and she has met her match in Sterling!

Surrender to the Devil is available on Amazon

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4838188London’s most notorious rogue—decadent, depraved, forbidden…The ladies of the ton won’t stop whispering about deliciously wicked Jack Dodger—once a thieving street urchin, now the wealthy owner of London’s most exclusive gentleman’s club. There’s no pleasure he hasn’t enjoyed, no debauchery the handsome scoundrel won’t provide for the lords who flock to his house of carnal intrigue.

London’s most virtuous lady—honorable, uncorrupted, and all too human…

Olivia, Duchess of Lovingdon, would never associate with such a rogue. So when Jack is named sole heir to the duke’s personal possessions, the beautiful, well-bred lady is outraged. Now, Olivia is forced to share her beloved home with this despicable man.

Caught between the devil and desire…

But Olivia’s icy disdain is no match for Jack’s dangerous charm. His touch awakens desire. His kiss demands surrender. She will struggle to bar Jack from her heart…but her body, coveting divine release, will not let her bar him from her bed

Why do you need to read this book?

I loved the character of Jack Dodger! To me, the whole storyline is wound around various tidbits of information about Jack – even up to the end. I don’t want to give up any of the storyline other than what you see in the blurb above, so I’ll just urge you to read this book!

Between the Devil and Desire is available on Amazon

Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!

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If You Give  A Rake a Ruby by Shana Galen

if-you-give-a-rake-a-rubyBlurb: Her Mysterious Past is the Best Revenge . . .

Fallon, the Marchioness of Mystery, is a celebrated courtesan with her finger on the pulse of high society. She’s adored by men, hated by their wives. No one knows anything about her past, and she plans to keep it that way.

 

Only He Can Offer Her a Dazzling Future . . .

Warrick Fitzhugh will do anything to protect his compatriots in the Foreign Office, including seduce Fallon, who he thinks can lead him to the deadliest crime lord in London. He knows he’s putting his life on the line . .

 

To Warrick’s shock, Fallon is not who he thinks she is, and the secrets she’s keeping are exactly what make her his heart’s desire . . .

Why do you need to read this book?

You need to read this book for several reasons. The first one being the character of Fallon. She is outstanding!! I loved her strength and her independence. The second major reason being Shana Galen’s storytelling abilities. I love her stories and this one is no different!

If you Give a Rake a Ruby is available at Amazon

 

Excerpt

(from Shana Galen’s website)

“Then I suggest you attend to your business, my lord. Good night.”

 

She turned and strolled toward the drawing room doors. She knew she would not reach them unmolested. She also knew she could ring for Titus.

 

But that would be too easy.

 

Kwirley was slower than she’d anticipated, and she had almost gained the towering mahogany doors before he caught her elbow and spun her around. “Not so fast—” he began.

 

Fallon kicked him in the belly, sending him sprawling backward. He knocked over a pedestal holding a jeweled lamp, and she had a moment’s worry because it was one of her favorites. But a quick glance reassured her the lamp was not broken.

 

The glance also revealed Kwirley was getting up. Blockhead. “Go home, my lord. I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

“Really?” He wiped his hands on his breeches. “Because I would like to hurt you. I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re going to pay for—”

 

She sidestepped him, spun, and booted him in his lower back. The blow set him off-balance, and she had a moment to grab a book and hurl it at him. Her aim was perfect, and the book’s spine hit him in the center of the forehead. “Ow, you little bitch!” He charged her, and Fallon shook her head. He wasn’t even thinking, simply acting blindly. She easily sidestepped him again, and he rammed into a settee, knocking it over. While he struggled to rise, Fallon dug her heel into the back of his neck and pressed him down.

 

“Had enough?” she asked. “Or would you prefer to go another round?” Because she was tired and wanted to go to bed, she ground her heel into his neck.

 

“Enough,” he mumbled.

 

“Good.” Without lifting her heel, she reached for a little silver bell and rang it. The sound tinkled softly in the room and the drawing room doors opened immediately to reveal Titus.

 

Titus was close to seven feet tall and easily twenty-five stone. He had a thick head of bright red hair, shocking blue eyes, and a mouth full of crooked teeth. His hands were as big as puppies and his legs tree trunks. He did not walk so much as lumber, and Kwirley began protesting the moment Titus entered the room.

 

“There’s been some sort of mistake. I didn’t intend any disrespect.”

 

Fallon sighed. “Titus, I might have known you would be standing right outside.”

 

The giant shrugged, his shoulders small mountains. “I like to make sure there’s no trouble, my lady.”

 

Fallon had told him a hundred times she was no lady, but he insisted on referring to her as such anyway. Who was she to protest? It wasn’t as though anyone else was clamoring to call her a lady.

 

She pressed her foot into Kwirley’s neck for good measure then lifted it and stepped away. “Would you be so kind as to show Lord Kwirley out?”

 

“I’ll show ‘im out,” Titus said. “But I won’t be kind about it.”

 

Kwirley gave her a panicked look, and Fallon was sorely tempted to shrug helplessly. But at the last moment, she took pity on the man. “Titus, be nice. Don’t throw Lord Kwirley farther than the lamppost.”

 

She strode out of the drawing room, listening to Kwirley sputter and then plead for mercy. Titus was a gentle giant to anyone he loved. He was an ogre to anyone who but looked askance at someone he loved. But she couldn’t feel too sorry for Kwirley. Her father—she hoped he burned in hell—always said when you started feeling sorry for those who want to take advantage of you, then you’ve gone soft and deserve what you get.

 

Of course, he hadn’t said it quite that politely.

 

She lifted her skirts and climbed the stairs; nodded to Mary, one of the chamber maids; and blew out a long sigh. She was exhausted.

 

The past few days had been grueling. She’d been to one social event after another—balls, routs, masquerades, soirées, musicales. At this point, if she never saw another ballroom, theater, or pleasure garden, she would not mourn the loss. Normally she enjoyed the whirl of the Season, but without Juliette, everything seemed different.

 

Juliette, Lily, and Fallon were no longer The Three Diamonds. Now it was only Lily and Fallon, and they both missed Juliette terribly.

 

And, if Fallon was honest, she envied Juliette. Who wouldn’t envy a woman married to a wealthy duke who obviously adored her? Fallon had never really believed in love. Her father hadn’t loved her mother. He’d used her charms to run scams or make ends meet. And her mother hadn’t loved her father. She’d been a dim woman who needed a man to tell her what to do.

 

Fallon hadn’t loved either of her parents. She thought she’d fallen in love once, but the experience had taught her she’d been right all long.

 

There was no such thing as love.

 

Except…when she looked at Juliette and her Dangerous Duke, Fallon wondered.

 

She strode down the corridor toward her boudoir. Her booted feet made shushing sounds on the thick rug, and even though she was now quite used to living surrounded by opulence, she paused a moment to savor the plush rug, the paintings on the walls, the expensive upholstery on the Sheraton chair she’d just passed, and the fine silk of her gown.

 

She had no illusions as to how fortunate she was. Unlike the daughters of duchesses and earls Fallon often glimpsed at the theater or a ball, she had not grown up in such privileged circumstances. She had been lucky to have something to eat and shoes on her feet.

 

She did not take any of this for granted. It could all be taken away from her with the snap of a finger if anyone ever found out who she really was. There was a reason the Prince Regent had dubbed her the Marchioness of Mystery. No one—save Lady Sinclair, Juliette, and Lily—knew the truth about her. The ton was greatly diverted by conjecturing as to her true identity.

 

Some said she was the daughter of a maharaja. Little did they know, Fallon had been obliged to ask Lady Sinclair for the definition of maharaja. Other rumors hinted she was a gypsy queen or a princess from a secret kingdom. Fallon wished there was a tiny kernel of truth in but one of the rumors. Anything was better than the reality.

 

She opened the door of her boudoir and stepped inside. Strange. Usually Anne had the fire roaring and several candles lit. But the room was dark and cold. Fallon shivered, crossed to her bed, and pulled the cord to summon her lady’s maid. She reached out and felt the edge of her bed—the soft silk of her counterpane felt light and inviting as a cloud. Fallon rolled her neck, then sank down onto her bed.

 

“Ouch!”

 

She bolted upright and stifled a scream. There was a man in her bed.

 

An uninvited man.

 

© Shana Galen

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14296766When you give a duke a diamond by Shana Galen

Blurb:

He had a perfectly orderly life…

 

William, the sixth Duke of Pelham, enjoys his punctual, securely structured life. Orderly and predictable—that’s the way he likes it. But he’s in the public eye, and the scandal sheets will make up anything to sell papers. When the gossip papers link him to Juliette, one of the most beautiful and celebrated courtesans in London, chaos doesn’t begin to describe what happens next…

 

Until she came along…

Juliette is nicknamed the Duchess of Dalliance and has the cream of the nobility at her beck and call. It’s disruptive to have the duke who is the biggest catch on the Marriage Mart scaring her other suitors away. Then she discovers William’s darkest secret and decides what he needs in his life is the kind of excitement only she can provide…

 

Why do you need to read this book?

To start with, it was created by Shana Galen, one of my favorite authors, but more than than, the character of Juliette is outstanding. She is strong and takes what she has and makes a life for herself – a tough thing to do in Regency England. She plans and she succeeds. I love this character! The duke is cute, but Juliette steals the show in my opinion.

When You Give a Duke a Diamond is available on Amazon

Excerpt:

(Taken from Ms. Galen’s website)

Now she wanted to sleep. She should not have stayed out so late, but the play had been witty, Vauxhall Gardens filled with the most entertaining men and women in London, and before she had realized, it was nearly morning. Rosie would have a difficult task ahead of her if Juliette was to look stunning at Carlton House tonight.

 

“Yes, Hollows, do rouse Mary and send her to my chamber.” Juliette felt badly about waking the girl—she, Hollows, and Cook were the only servants not given the night off—but Juliette did not relish sleeping in her stays and gown, and she could not get them off by herself. Once she was undressed, she would send Mary back to bed and finish her toilette on her own.

 

Juliette started up the steps. “Off to bed with you, Hollows,” she said over her shoulder. “I shan’t need you for several hours.”

 

“Yes, Duchess.”

 

Juliette’s feet felt like cannonballs—not that she had ever touched a cannonball—but she imagined they were impossibly heavy. Why had she agreed to so many dances? No, she had never been good at denying herself pleasure when it was to be had, and tonight the music had been lively, the gentlemen agreeable, and her spirits high. She could have danced until noon.

 

Thank God she hadn’t. One day she would learn to think of the consequences before she acted.

 

She stepped onto the first floor landing and started for the stairs to the second floor, where her bedchamber was located. The doors to the drawing room were closed, but Juliette paused when she heard a sound from within. She stopped, pressed her ear to the doors, and listened.

 

Silence.

 

She shook her head. She was so tired, her mind was deceiving her.

 

She started for the steps again and heard an unmistakable thump. Whirling, she did not hesitate but ran straight to the banister. “Hollows!” Her heart hammered in her chest. “Hollows! C—”

 

A hand clamped over her mouth, and she was propelled backward, losing one slipper as she was dragged.

 

Oliver.

 

He had come for her, as he’d vowed he would. She’d grown complacent, dismissing her additional footmen for the night. How could she have been so foolish? Now he would kill her. Hollows, who was rather hard of hearing, would never even hear her scream.

 

Juliette kicked and clawed, but she couldn’t escape. The man—she assumed it was a man because the hands were so large—had grasped her about the waist to haul her back more quickly. His hand on her mouth tightened and began to cut off her air. She tried to gasp in a breath as the drawing room doors slammed, and a man she did not know stepped before them.

 

“Hello, Duchess,” he said.

 

She blinked and swallowed, still trying to catch her breath.

 

It wasn’t Oliver. Thank God.

 

The man dressed stylishly in black. His hair was the color of midnight with a streak as white as the pearls at her throat. He smiled at her, but his eyes were dark and menacing. Juliette thought perhaps she might reserve her thanks a few more moments.

 

“I’d like to have a brief chat,” the man said. “Gabriel, she’s turning purple. Do lift your hand. You won’t scream, will you, Duchess?”

 

She shook her head, having every intention of screaming as soon as this Gabriel removed his paw from her mouth. Even if Hollows didn’t hear, the cook or Mary might.

 

“Good because if you do, you won’t like the consequences—for you and whoever comes to your aid.”

 

Gabriel removed his hand, and Juliette kept her mouth clamped shut. Something about the man in black made her believe he could make her very sorry indeed if she did not do as he bid. She had been made very sorry before for disobedience and, subsequently, had become quite good at doing as she was told. For a decade she had been her own independent woman, but now she felt seventeen again. All her survival instincts resurfaced.

 

She stepped away from the man called Gabriel and cut her eyes to take in the room. The usually stylish, immaculate room was in complete shambles. The expensive drapes had been ripped to ribbons, the newly upholstered chair cushions spilled their filling, antique lamps were overturned, and the heavy drawers scattered their contents on the rug.

 

Escape was her only salvation. She had to find a means to escape. But she couldn’t allow these men to know she was afraid or planned to run. The punishment would come faster then.

 

“Looking for something?” she croaked.

 

The man in black smiled again, and this time it almost reached his obsidian-colored eyes. “Very perceptive, Duchess. May I call you Duchess?” He moved smoothly to a toppled chair, righted it, and sat as though he was perfectly at ease. As though this were his home, not hers.

 

Juliette bristled, but she was too adept at hiding her emotions to show it. The Countess of Sinclair had taught her well.

 

“I prefer Mrs. Clifton,” she said, though no one had called her that in years. Oliver had used that name, and she’d come to hate it. But it seemed appropriate at this moment.

 

“Why don’t I call you Juliette? It seems fitting as we are going to be good friends, Juliette.”

 

Her throat tightened. She had to get out of here. “And what should I call you?” she asked coolly.

 

“Lucifer, of course. Do you know what I want to discuss, Juliette?”

 

She shook her head. Dear God, she prayed he wasn’t going to rape her. Her mind was racing, trying to place him. But he wasn’t familiar to her at all. She didn’t think she could have spurned him. She would have remembered, and she was always gentle with those whose attentions she rejected.

 

Could Oliver have sent him?

 

No, her former husband liked to do his own work. “Actually, I don’t know what you wish to discuss, Lucifer,” Juliette replied with strained politeness. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

 

“Oh, come, come. We are friends. We can be honest with one another.”

 

She shook her head, cutting her gaze to the drawing room doors. If she ran, could she make it in time? Even as the thought occurred to her, Gabriel—large and blond—stepped in front of the doors and crossed his arms.

 

“I am being honest with you,” she said to Lucifer, panic rising in her throat now. “I don’t know you.” But even as she spoke she could see he didn’t believe her. She could see she was doomed.

 

Lucifer raised a brow. “But I know you, and I know you have something of mine. Now, are you going to tell me about the diamonds, or am I going to have to find more creative methods of loosening your tongue?”

 

© Shana Galen

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duke-mineThe Duke is Mine by Eloisa James

Blurb: Tarquin, the powerful Duke of Sconce, knows perfectly well that the decorous and fashionably slender Georgiana Lytton will make him a proper duchess. So why can’t he stop thinking about her twin sister, the curvy, headstrong, and altogether unconventional Olivia? Not only is Olivia betrothed to another man, but their improper, albeit intoxicating, flirtation makes her unsuitability all the more clear.

 

Determined to make a perfect match, he methodically cuts Olivia from his thoughts, allowing logic and duty to triumph over passion…Until, in his darkest hour, Tarquin begins to question whether perfection has anything to do with love.

 

To win Olivia’s hand he would have to give up all the beliefs he holds most dear, and surrender heart, body and soul…

 

Unless it’s already too late.

Why do you need to read this book?

Honestly, when I read the blurb for this book, I didn’t think that I could enjoy a book which has a hero named Tarquin, but the name suits the character. It kind of grows on you. This book simply has a beautiful, kleenex worthy story line. Just great!

The Duke Is Mine can be purchased at Amazon

Excerpt:

 

Chapter One

In Which We Are Introduced to a Future Duchess

41 Clarges Street, Mayfair

London

The residence of Mr. Lytton, Esq.

Most betrothals spring from one of two fierce emotions: love or greed. But Olivia Lytton’s was fueled neither by an exchange of assets between like-minded aristocrats, nor by a potent mixture of desire, propinquity, and Cupid’s arrows.

In fact, the bride-to-be was liable, in moments of despair, to attribute her engagement to a curse. “Perhaps our parents forgot to ask a powerful fairy to my christening,” she told her sister Georgiana on their way home from a ball given by the Earl of Summers, at which Olivia had spent generous swaths of time with her betrothed. “The curse, it hardly needs to be said, was Rupert’s hand in marriage. I would rather sleep for a hundred years.”

“Sleeping has its attractions,” her sister agreed, descending from their parents’ carriage before the house. Typically, Georgiana did not pair the positive comment with its opposite: Sleep had attractions… but Rupert had few.

Olivia actually had to swallow hard, and sit in the dark carriage by herself a moment, before she was able to pull herself together and follow her sister. She had always known that she would be Duchess of Canterwick someday, so it made no sense to feel so keenly miserable. But there it was. An evening spent with her future husband made her feel half cracked.

It didn’t help that most of London, her mother included, considered her the luckiest of young women. Her mother would be horrified—though unsurprised—by her lame jest linking the dukedom with a curse. To Olivia’s parents, it was manifestly clear that their daughter’s ascension of the social ranks was a piece of singular good fortune. In short, a blessing.

Although, putting aside notions of good or evil, Olivia’s betrothal was really the result of a boyhood promise.

“Thank God,” Mr. Lytton had said, oh, five thousand times since Olivia was born, “If I hadn’t gone to Eton…”

It was a story that Olivia and her twin sister Georgiana had loved when they were little. They would perch on their papa’s knees and listen to the thrilling tale of how he—plain, unremarkable (albeit connected to an earl on one side, as well as a bishop and a marquess on the other) Mr. Lytton—had gone to Eton and become best friends with the Duke of Canterwick, who had inherited his grand title at the tender age of five. The next part of the story kept changing, but whether it was because their father had fought off a bully in the schoolyard, or had written the duke’s essays for him, or something altogether more consequential…it didn’t matter. At age fourteen, the boys had sworn a blood oath that Mr. Lytton’s eldest daughter would become a duchess by marrying the Duke of Canterwick’s eldest son.

Mr. Lytton showed giddy enthusiasm in doing his part to ensure this eventuality, producing not one, but two daughters, within a year of marriage. The Duke of Canterwick, for his part, produced only one son, and that after a few years of marriage, but obviously one son was sufficient for the task at hand. Most importantly, His Grace kept his word, and regularly reassured Mr. Lytton about the destined betrothal.

Consequently, the proud parents of the duchess-to-be did everything in their power to prepare their firstborn daughter (the elder by a good seven minutes) for the title that was to be bestowed upon her, sparing no expense in shaping the future Duchess of Canterwick. Olivia was tutored from the moment she left the cradle. By ten years of age, she was expert in the finer points of etiquette, the management of country estates (including double-entry accounting), playing the harpsichord and the spinet, greeting people in various languages including Latin (useful for visiting bishops, if no one else), and even in French cooking, though her knowledge of the last was intellectual rather than practical. Duchesses never actually touched food, except to eat it.

She also had a thorough knowledge of her mother’s favorite tome, The Mirror of Compliments: A Complete Academy for the Attaining unto the Art of Being a Lady, which was written by no less a personage than Her Grace, the Duchess of Sconce.

In fact, Olivia’s mother had read The Mirror of Compliments so many times that it had taken over her conversation, rather like ivy smothering a tree. “Gentility,” she had said that morning over marmalade and toast, “is bestowed on us by our ancestors, but soon blanched, when not revived by virtue.” Olivia had nodded. She herself was a firm believer in the benefits of blanching gentility, but long experience had taught her that expressing such an opinion would merely give her mother a headache.

“A duchess,” Mrs. Lytton had announced on the way to Summers ball, “loathes nothing so much as entering parley with an immodest suitor.” Olivia knew better than to inquire about how one “parleyed” with an immodest suitor. The ton understood that she was betrothed to the Duke of Canterwick’s heir, and therefore suitors, immodest or otherwise, rarely bothered to approach.

Generally speaking, she tabled that sort of advice for the future, when she hoped to indulge in any number of immodest parleys.

“Did you see Lord Webbe dancing with Mrs. Shottery?” Olivia asked her sister as they walked into her bedchamber. “It’s quite affecting to watch them stare into each other’s eyes. I must say, the ton seems to take their wedding vows about as seriously as do the French, and everyone says that inclusion of marital fidelity in French wedding vows turned them a splendid work of fiction.”

“Olivia!” Georgiana groaned. “You mustn’t! And you wouldn’t—would you?”

“Are you asking whether I will ever be unfaithful to my fiancé once he’s my husband—if that day ever arrives?”

Georgiana nodded.

“I suppose not,” Olivia said, though secretly she sometimes wondered if she might just snap one day and break every social rule by running off to Rome with a footman. “The only part of the evening I really enjoyed was when Lord Bladder told me a limerick about an adulterous abbot.”

“Don’t you dare repeat it!” her sister ordered. Georgiana had never shown the faintest wish to rebel against the rules of propriety. She loved and lived by them.

“There once was an adulterous abbot,” Olivia teased, “as randy—“

Georgiana slapped her hands over her ears. “I can’t believe he told you such a thing! Father would be furious, if he knew.”

“Lord Bladder was in his cups,” Olivia said. “Besides, he’s ninety-six and he doesn’t care about decorum any longer. Just a laugh, now and then.”

“It doesn’t even make sense. An adulterous abbot? How can an abbot be adulterous? They don’t even marry.”

“Just let me know if you want to hear the whole verse,” Olivia said. “It ends with talk of nuns, so I believe the word was being used loosely.”

That limerick—and Olivia’s appreciation of it—pointed directly to the problem with Miss Lytton’s duchess-ification—or, as the girls labeled it, “duchification.” There was something very unducal about Olivia, no matter how proper her bearing, her voice, and her manners might be. She certainly could play the duchess, but the real Olivia was, dismayingly, never far from the surface.

“You are missing that indefinable air of consequence that your sister conveys without effort,” her father often opined, with an air of despondent resignation. “In short, Daughter, your sense of humor tends toward vulgar.”

“Your demeanor should ever augment your honor,” her mother would chime in, quoting the Duchess of Sconce.

And Olivia would shrug.

“If only,” Mrs. Lytton had said despairingly to her husband time and again, “if only Georgiana had been born first.” For Olivia was not the only participant in the Lytton training program. Olivia and Georgiana had marched in lockstep through lessons on comportment and deportment, because their parents, aware of the misfortunes that might threaten their eldest daughter—a fever, a runaway carriage, a fall from a tower—had prudently duchified their second-born as well.

Sadly, it was manifest to everyone that Georgiana had achieved the quality of a duchess while Olivia… Olivia was Olivia. She certainly could behave with exquisite grace—but among her intimates, she was sarcastic, far too witty to be ladylike, and not in the least gracious. “She looks at me in such a way if I merely mention The Mirror of Compliments,” Mrs. Lytton would complain. “I’m only trying to help, I’m sure.”

“That girl will be a duchess someday,” Mr. Lytton would say heavily. “She’ll be grateful to us then.”

“But if only…” Mrs. Lytton would say, wistfully. “Dearest Georgiana is just…well, she would be a perfect duchess, wouldn’t she?”

In fact, Olivia’s sister had mastered early the delicate art of combining a pleasing air of consequence with an irreproachably modest demeanor. Over the years Georgiana had built up a formidable array of duchess-like traits: ways of walking, talking, and carrying herself. Even more importantly, she had a duchess’s touch: she knew instinctively how to behave in any situation.

“Dignity, virtue, affability, and bearing,” Mrs. Lytton recited over and over, turning it into a nursery rhyme.

Georgiana would glance at the glass, checking her dignified bearing and affable expression.

Olivia would sing back to her mother: “Debility, vanity, absurdity, and…brainlessness!”

By eighteen years of age, Georgiana looked, sounded, and even smelled(thanks to French perfume, smuggled from enemy territory at great expense) like a duchess. Mostly Olivia didn’t bother.

The Lyttons were happy, in a measured sort of way. By any sensible standard they had produced a real duchess, even if that particular daughter was not betrothed to a duke’s heir. As their girls were growing up, they told themselves that Georgiana would make a lovely wife to any man of rank. Alas, in time they stopped saying anything about their second daughter’s hypothetical husband.

The sad truth is that a duchified girl is not what most young men desire. While Georgiana’s virtues were celebrated far and wide throughout the ton—especially amongst the dowager set—her hand was rarely sought for a dance, let alone for marriage.

Mr. and Mrs. Lytton interpreted the problem differently.  To their mind, their beloved second daughter was likely to dwindle into the shadow of a duchess, without becoming even a wife, merely because she had no dowry.

The Lyttons had spent all their disposable income on tutors, not to mention saving for Olivia’s dowry. That left their younger daughter without more than a pittance to launch her on the marriage market.

“We have sacrificed everything for that girl,” Mrs. Lytton often said. “I can’t understand why Olivia is not more grateful. She’s the luckiest girl in England.”

Olivia did not view herself as lucky at all.

“The only reason I can countenance marrying Rupert,” she said to Georgiana, “is that I will be able to dower you.” She stripped off her gloves, biting the tips to pull them from her fingers. “To be honest, the mere thought of the wedding makes me feel slightly mad. I could bear the rank—though it isn’t my cup of tea, to say the least—if he weren’t such a little, beardy-weirdy bottle-headed chub.”

“You’re using slang,” Georgiana said. “And—“

“Absolutely not,” Olivia said, throwing her gloves onto her bed. “I made it up myself, and you know as well as I do that the Mirror for Bumpkins says that slang is—and I quote—grossness of speech used by the lowest degenerates in our nation. Much though I would like to attain the qualifications of a degenerate, I have no hope of achieving that particular title in this life.”

“You shouldn’t,” Georgiana said, arranging herself on the settee before Olivia’s fireplace. Olivia had been given the grandest bedchamber in the house, larger than either their mother’s or father’s chambers, so the twins hid from their parents in Olivia’s room.

But the reprimand didn’t have her usual fire. Olivia frowned at her sister. “Was it a particularly rotten night, Georgie? I kept getting swept away by my dim-witted fiancé, and after supper I lost track of you.”

“I would have been easy to find,” Georgiana replied. “I sat among the dowagers most of the night.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Olivia said, sitting down next to her sister and giving her a fierce hug. “Just wait until I’m a duchess. I’ll dower you so magnificently that every gentleman in the country will be on bended knee at the very thought of you. ‘Golden Georgiana,’ they’ll call you.”

Georgiana didn’t even smile, so Olivia forged ahead. “I like sitting with the dowagers. They have all the stories one would really like to hear, like that one about Lord Mettersnatch paying seven guineas to be flogged.”

Her sister’s brows drew together.

“I know, I know!” Olivia exclaimed, before Georgiana could speak. “Vulgar, vulgar, vulgar. All the same, I loved the part about the nursemaid costume. Truly, you should be glad you weren’t me. Canterwick stalked up and down the ballroom all night, dragging Rupert and me behind him. Everyone groveled, tittered behind my back, and went off to inform the rest of the room how uncommonly unlucky the FF is to be marrying me.”

Between themselves, Olivia and Georgiana generally referred to Rupert Forrest G. Blakemore—Marquess of Montsurrey, future Duke of Canterwick—as “the FF,” which stood for foolish fiancé. On occasion he was also “the HH” (half-wit husband), “the BB” (brainless betrothed) and—because the girls were fluent in both Italian and French—“the MM” (mindless marito or mindless mari, depending on the language of the moment).

“The only thing lacking to make this evening absolutely and irredeemably hellish,” Olivia continued, “was a wardrobe malfunction. If someone had stepped on my hem and ripped it, baring my arse to the world, I might have been more humiliated. I certainly would have been less bored.”

“In my opinion, our gowns qualify as wardrobe malfunctions without the addition of rips,” Georgiana said, tipping her head back and staring at the ceiling.

She looked miserable. Olivia felt a pang of alarm. Georgiana so rarely allowed a real emotion to disrupt her façade of serenity that a drooping mouth was akin to hysteria in another woman. “We should look on the bright side,” she said, striving for a rousing tone. “The FF danced with both of us. Thank goodness he’s finally old enough to attend a ball.”

“He counted the steps aloud,” Georgiana stated. “And he said my dress made me look like a puffy cloud.”

“Surely it could not have surprised you to discover that Rupert lacks a gift for elegant conversation. If anyone looked like a puffy cloud, it was I; you looked like a vestal virgin. Far more dignified than a cloud.”

Georgia just kept silently staring at the ceiling, so Olivia rattled on. “a virginal lady would surely have to be unwilling to qualify as a sacrifice. From what I saw tonight, London is full of virgins desperate to sacrifice themselves, if you think of matrimony as a kind of death, which I do.”

“I don’t,” her sister said, turning her head. Her eyes were full of tears.

“Oh, Georgie!” Olivia gathered her into another hug. “Please don’t cry. I’ll be a duchess in no time, and then I’ll dower you and order such beautiful clothing that you’ll be the wonder of London.”

“This is my fourth season, Olivia. You can’t possibly understand how dreadful it feels, given that you’ve never really been on the market. No gentleman paid me attention tonight, any more than they have in the last three years.”

“It was the dress and the dowry. We all looked like ghosts, but not transparent. You, of course, were a willowy ghost and I was a particularly solid one.”

Olivia and Georgiana had worn matching gowns of frail white silk, caught up under their bosoms with long ribbons trimmed with seed pearls and tasseled at the ends. The same streamers appeared on the sides and the backs of the gowns, rippling in the faintest breeze. On the page, in Madame Wellbrook’s pattern book, the design had looked exquisite.

There was a lesson there…a dismal one.

Just because fluttering ribbons look good on a stick-thin lady portrayed in a pattern book does not mean that they will be when festooned around one’s hips.

“I caught sight of you dancing with that bald man,” Olivia continued. “You looked like a bouncy maypole with all those ribbons trembling around you. Your ringlets were bouncing as well.”

“Lord Galligasken is a vigorous dancer.” Georgiana managed a wobbly smile. “I don’t think I looked like a maypole. More like a little suckling pig, one of those white ones you see in fairs that can stand up on its back legs.”

“Only if it were a very thin pig wearing a silk apron with long ties,” Olivia replied, after giving the idea some consideration. “And a wig with long ringlets. Though no pig would put up with the two hours it took to shape these blasted curls. Besides, if either of us looked like a piglet, Georgie, it was obviously me. That miserable gown flattered your figure, not that you needed it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Georgiana said flatly. She brushed away a tear. “It’s the duchification, Olivia. No man wants to marry a prude who acts as if she’s a ninety-five-year-old dowager. And”—She gave a little sob—“I simply can’t seem to behave any differently. I don’t believe that anyone titters behind your back, unless from jealousy. But I’m like nursery gruel. I—I can see their eyes glaze over when they have to dance with me.”

Privately, Olivia agreed that the duchification program had much to answer for. But she wrapped her arm tighter around her sister and said, “Georgiana, you have a wonderful figure, you’re sweet as honey, and the fact that you know how to set a table for one hundred has nothing to do with it. Marriage is a contract, and contracts are about money. A woman has to have a dowry or no man will even consider marrying her.”

Georgiana sniffed, which served to demonstrate how upset she was, as she normally would never countenance such an unrefined gesture.

“Your waist makes me positively sick with envy,” Olivia added. “I look like a butter churn, whereas you’re so slim that I could balance you on the head of a pin, like an angel.”

Most young ladies on the marriage market—Georgiana included—were indeed ethereally slim. They floated from room to room, diaphanous silk sweeping around their slender bodies.

Olivia was not one of them. It was the sad truth, the canker at the heart of the ducal flower, another source of stress for Mrs. Lytton. As she saw it, Olivia’s over-indulgence in vulgar wit and buttered toast stemmed from the same character defects. Olivia did not disagree.

“May I borrow a handkerchief?” Georgiana asked, sniffing again.

“I’ll find one,” Olivia said, jumping up and beginning to rummage through her wardrobe. “Here, use this.” She tossed a piece of cloth to her sister.

It landed on Georgiana’s shoulder, and she plucked it off with a frown. “A chemise? You want me to blow my nose on a chemise?”

“Why not? There don’t seem to be any handkerchiefs here. I’m not sure where Norah keeps them.”

“Because it takes at least three times the work to launder and iron a chemise as it takes to do the same for a handkerchief,” her sister said, a bit of steel in her voice.

“It’s the chemise or nothing,” Olivia said, coming back to the sofa. “But darling…”

“What?” Georgiana asked, her voice muffled by the chemise.

“You might want to try to be less virtuous, if you see what I mean.”

“But I’m right.”

Olivia was silent.

“You’re saying that I’m a sanctimonious prig,” Georgiana said, another sob escaping, with a hiccup in tow.

“No! I think you’re the most intelligent woman I know, and your ethical sense is admirable. Truly. It never would have occurred to me to consider the labor behind an ironed handkerchief versus a chemise.”

Georgiana hiccupped again. “A—a duchess needs to know that sort of thing in order to run a large household. Not that I’ll ever have a husband, let alone a household.”

“This reminds me!” Olivia cried. “I heard tonight that the Duke of Sconce is going to take a wife. I suppose he needs an heir. Just imagine, Georgie. You could be daughter-in-law to the most stiff-rumped starch bucket of them all. Do you suppose the duchess reads her Maggoty Mirror aloud at the dining table? She would adore you. In fact, you’re probably the only woman in the kingdom whom she would love.”

“Dowagers always love me,” Georgiana said with another sniff. “That doesn’t mean the duke will give me a second glance. Besides, I thought that Sconce was married.”

“If the duchess approved of bigamy she would have put it in the Mirror; therefore, its absence suggests that he is need of a second wife. By the way, Mother has decided that I should try a lettuce diet that someone told her about.”

“Lettuce?”

“One eats only lettuce between the hours of eight and eight.”

“That’s absurd. If you want to reduce, you should stop buying meat pies when Mama thinks you’re buying ribbons. Though to be honest, Olivia, I think you should eat whatever you want. I want quite desperately to marry, and even so, the idea of marrying Rupert makes me want to eat a meat pie.”

“Four pies,” Olivia corrected. “At least.”

“What’s more, it doesn’t matter how slim you could become by eating lettuce,” Georgiana continued. “The FF has no choice but to marry you. If you grew rabbit ears, he would still have to marry you. Whereas no one can countenance the idea of marrying me, no matter what my waist looks like. I need money to—to bribe them.” Her voice wavered again.

“They’re all port-brained buffoons,” Olivia said, with another squeeze. “They haven’t noticed you, but they will, once Rupert dowers you.”

“He’ll forget to sign the papers,” Georgiana said damply. “He rattled on and on about fighting the French, but when I asked him where the battle was located at the moment, he couldn’t remember. The way he crowed about achieving honor, I expect he’s across the Channel by now.”

“Not quite yet,” Olivia stated.

There was a moment of silence, and then Georgiana sat bolt upright. “Don’t tell me that the FF is finally pledging himself? He’s going to marry you before he leaves for the war?”

“Close.” Olivia would have loved to explain away her immediate and visceral reaction to the word “marry” by a bad shrimp. But a feeling this overwhelming would imply she had eaten an entire ocean of bad shrimp. Instead, there was just one bad fiancé, who would likely resent being compared to a bit of aged seafood.

“He obtained a special license!”

“No, it’s to be a betrothal only, but I understand this is legally binding. Rupert is coming over with his father to sign the papers tomorrow evening.”

“For goodness’ sake,” Georgiana gasped. “You really are going to become a duchess. The FF is about to become the BB!”

“Foolish fiancés are often killed on the battlefield,” Olivia pointed out. “I think the term is ‘cannon fodder.’”

Her sister gave a sudden laugh. “You could at least try to sound sad at the prospect.”

“I would be sad,” Olivia protested. “I think.”

“You’d have reason. Not only would you lose the prospect of being ‘Your Grace’d for the rest of your life, but our parents would hold hands as they jumped off Battersea Bridge to their watery deaths.”

“I can’t even imagine what Mama and Papa would do if the goose that promised golden eggs was turned into pâté de foie gras by the French,” Olivia said, a bit sadly. It seemed that as each year went by, her parents were less and less interested in their eldest daughter as a person, as opposed to a duchess. Though really, had they ever expressed interest in anything but her duchess-designed accomplishments?

“What happens if the FF dies before marrying you?” Georgiana asked. “Legal or not, a betrothal is not a wedding.”

“I gather these papers make the whole situation a good deal more solid,” Olivia said. “I’m certain most of the ton believes that he’ll cry off before we get to the altar, given my general lack of beauty, not to mention the fact that I don’t eat enough lettuce.”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous. You are beautiful,” Georgiana said. “You have the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen. I can’t think why I got plain brown eyes and you have those green ones.” She peered at her. “Pale green. The color of celery, really.”

“If my hips were like celery, then we’d have something to celebrate.”

“You’re luscious,” her sister insisted. “Like a sweet, juicy peach.”

“I don’t mind being a peach,” Olivia said. “Too bad celery is in fashion.”

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