The top romance blogs team up to give away free books and celebrate the genre ... it's the monthly Romance Round Robin! Stop by all four blogs and leave a comment for a chance to win awesome prizes on each site.
Heroes and Heartbreakers: Read an excerpt of Valerie Bowman’s Secrets of a Wedding Night and
enter to win one of four prize packs including this book . Sweepstakes ends 9/23, so comment now!
Romance at Random: Discover Samantha Kane’s sensual tale of wicked passion, The Devil’s Thief, and enter to win one of five prize packs, including a limited edition advance print copy of this hot historical.
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The sweepstakes end September 23rd. Be sure to stop by each site and increase your chances to win!
A penniless widow. A scandalous pamphlet. And a scoundrel who never forgot his true love. Get a sneak peek of Chapters 1-3 from Valerie Bowman’s Secrets of a Wedding Night (available September 25), the first book in her new Secrets Trilogy.
Be sure to leave a comment below to enter for a chance to win one of four prize packs including Valerie Bowman’s Secrets of a Wedding Night and a limited edition print advanced reading copy of Samantha Kane's The Devil's Thief.*
HOW TO STOP A WEDDING
Young, widowed, and penniless, Lily Andrews, the Countess of Merrill,has strong opinions on marriage. When she spots a certain engagement announcement in The Times, she decides to take action. She will not allow another hapless girlto fall prey to a man—particularly the scoundrel who broke her heart five years ago. Anonymously she writes and distributes a pamphlet entitled “Secrets of a Wedding Night,” knowing it will find its way into his intended’s innocent hands…
HOW TO SEDUCE A WIDOW
Devon Morgan, the Marquis of Colton, desires a good wife and mother to his son—someone completely unlike Lily Andrews, the heartless beauty who led him on a merry chase five years ago only to reject him. When Devon’s new fiancée cries off after reading a certain scandalous pamphlet, he vows to track down the author and make her pay. But when he learns it’s his former fiancée Lily, he issues a challenge: write a retractionor prepare to be seduced—to find out how wonderful a wedding night can be…
London, April 1816
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The blows on the door echoed through the foyer. Lily heard them all the way in the study where she was poring over the dismal house hold accounts for the hundredth time.
“I demand to see the countess,” a deep male voice thundered.
Lily stopped scribbling. She glanced at Leopold, the scruffy brown terrier who sat curled on a worn cushion at her feet. “Demand? Good heavens.” She shook her head. “Which one of my so-called admirers is at it today?”
Returning her attention to the ledger, she mumbled, “Who knew? Apparently, twenty-two-year- old widows are all the rage this Season. That is, twenty- two-year-old widows reportedly worth a small fortune.”
Leopold cocked his head and barked. Lily bit her lip. “Or it could be a debt collector.”
Evans appeared in the doorway. Lily regarded her old friend with a weary sigh. “So, which is it? A fortune hunter or a creditor?”
“My lady, Lord Colton is in the white salon. He insists upon seeing you.”
Lily sat up straight. “Colton?”
“The Marquis of Colton,” Evans clarified, clearing his throat.
Leopold yipped as if he recognized the name. Evans gave the dog a dubious glance indicative of the strained relationship the two had shared over the last several years.
Lily rubbed the feathered tip of her quill against her nose, her brows knitting together. “Hmm. This is an interesting development.”
She was grateful Evans had been awake to answer the door. Her butler had an unfortunate penchant for falling asleep at the most unexpected times. Though she suspected the racket had roused him.
Plopping the quill back into the well, she stood and smoothed her palms down her worn, gray skirts.
“Tell Lord Colton I’ll be in momentarily, Evans.” She nodded, enjoying the jolt of anticipation that leaped to life in her belly.
Devon Morgan, Marquis of Colton, in her house. Well. Of course she’d relish a distraction from the depressing house accounts, but there was something else. She’d relish the distraction from the simpering fops who’d been appearing on her doorstep smelling of too much sweet cologne and desperation. Lord Colton might be trouble, but there was nothing desperate about him.
She clapped her hands and her canine companion fell into line behind her. She and Leo whisked up the back staircase. Lily squelched the little smile that popped to her lips. Oh, yes. She knew exactly why Lord Colton was sitting in her salon. Though she hadn’t expected to see him quite so soon.
A quarter hour later, Lily made her way down the main hallway, past the tattered carpets she couldn’t afford to replace. She’d changed from the threadbare dove-gray gown into the darker morning dress she saved for company.
She drew in one last deep breath and pushed open the double doors to the white salon with both hands. She let the doors close behind her while her gaze scanned the room. It was beautifully decorated with delicate rosewood chairs, sterling silver candlesticks, and lovely antique vases filled with fresh flowers. The only room in the house so well appointed. Another concession to appearances.
Lily squared her shoulders. The confident smile she had pasted on her face belied the nervous knot of anticipation that roiled through her belly. She folded her hands serenely—a trick her mother taught her long ago—and made her way into the room.
Lord Colton sat in an embroidered chair, facing the window, his profile to her. He’d turned his head at the sound of her entrance. His countenance was a study in barely controlled anger. But years of breeding could not be denied. He rose to greet her.
Lily sucked in her breath. My, my, she hadn’t seen the Marquis of Colton up close in an age. He’d always been handsome—how could she forget? —but she had failed to remember him being quite this good- looking.
He stood easily two inches over six feet tall, with slightly curly, raven- black hair. He had chiseled cheekbones and a perfectly sculpted mouth that could linger in one’s memory, if one were interested in such things, which Lily decidedly was not. But most intriguing of all were his eyes. Deep, dark, and coffee brown, they shone with an off-putting intelligence and were framed by thick, long lashes that held an appeal all their own.
Lily pressed her lips together. Oh, yes, the Marquis of Colton was tall, dark, and handsome. Too much of all three for Lily’s peace of mind.
She swept toward him, meeting his eyes, and his anger seemed to diffuse a bit. His shoulders settled and his stance became less rigid.
“Lord Colton.” She curtsied and her dark skirts pooled around her ankles. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? I haven’t seen you in—what’s it been—three years? Four?”
Leopold trotted past—affording Lord Colton with a distinctive growl indicative of the strained relationship they had shared in the past—before taking up residence on his favorite cushion in the corner.
Lily hid her smile and offered her hand to the marquis.
When he touched her small, cold fingers with his strong, warm ones, a frisson of awareness skittered up Lily’s spine. He bowed. There was that breeding again.
“Four years, perhaps,” he answered. “And whether or not this visit is pleasurable remains to be seen, my lady.”
His voice seemed to seek out some sensitive place along her nerves and thrum a thrilling tune. Deep, masculine, and oh- so-powerful was Lord Colton’s voice. And confident. She mustn’t forget confident.
Pulling her hand away from his unsettling touch, Lily crossed her arms over her chest and drummed her fingertips along her elbows. Four years? It had been nearly five and he knew it.
They both knew it.
“How did you find me, my lord? Seems the last time you were expected to pay me a visit, you lost your way.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “It was quite simple, really. I merely followed the trail of men to your door. Rumor has it your butler has had to beat away your suitors with a stick. When he can stay awake, that is.”
Lily gritted her teeth. “It’s indelicate of you to mention Evans’s unfortunate condition, but I suppose I should expect no more of you. I also employ a maid who cannot remember her name from one moment to the next. Not all house holds can be as illustrious as yours, now can they?”
His only reply was a smirk. So much for that good breeding.
“But now that I think upon it, it is a fine idea,” Lily continued. “I shall have to ask Evans to fetch a stick. It’s unfortunate he didn’t have one before you arrived.”
Leopold’s ears perked and Lily shook her head, assuring the dog there was, in fact, no stick to be had. He slumped back onto his cushion and closed his eyes.
Lord Colton’s smile was tight. “I am not a suitor, and I assure you, your butler would need more than a stick to keep me from my mission today.”
“Mission? My, it sounds dire. But please, be quick about it. I’m quite busy of late, planning Annie’s debut.” And keeping the creditors at bay, she thought with a grimace.
His face registered only mild surprise. “Annie? That little imp is eighteen already?”
Lily nodded. No doubt he recalled how a thirteen-year-old Annie used to hide behind the banister at the top of the staircase in their parents’ house and giggle when Colton would come to pay a call on Lily.
She shook her head. That was all a long time ago. A very long time ago.
Colton’s voice held a note of sarcasm. “No doubt your sister will be as sought after as you are.”
Lily shrugged. “Annie doesn’t know the dangers that await her in the marriage mart, but her heart remains set upon a debut and I would do anything to make her happy.” Lily waved a hand in the air, dismissing the subject. She rang for Evans. “Would you care for some tea, my lord?” she asked in a deceptively sweet voice.
“No, thank you.”
Lily sighed. Lord Colton’s dark eyes tracked her every move. They seemed omniscient, as if he knew her secrets.
Could he tell how relieved she was that he’d refused the tea? Cream and sugar were as precious as gold.
“I’d prefer a brandy,” he quickly added.
“It’s half two,” she replied with a disapproving stare. And brandy isn’t cheap either.
His hooded eyes showed no emotion. “Your point?”
The muscles in Lily’s cheeks ached from keeping the fake smile plastered to her face. She let the smile fade and turned to the sideboard where she splashed only a bit of brandy into a glass for Lord Colton. The man was exactly like her father, a drinker and a gambler.
And she’d known no one as useless as her father.
“I see in addition to your renowned gambling and your rakishness, you’ve also turned to the bottle. Are you trying for all seven of the deadly sins?”
His voice was calm. “And I see in addition to your renowned flirtations and your fickleness, your skills as a hostess leave much to be desired.”
Smile firmly in place, she turned back to begrudgingly hand Lord Colton his drink. His gaze flicked to Leopold. “I see you’ve still got your mongrel.”
Leopold lifted a floppy ear and growled again.
Lily stiffened her spine. “I would never part with my Leo.”
Lord Colton smiled a smile that made Lily wonder why it was so hot in the salon of a sudden. Some dark emotion kindled in his eyes. “You never could resist a stray.”
Lily gave Colton a blatant once-over. Oh, no, they weren’t talking about Leo anymore. She delicately cleared her throat. “Do tell me, what brings you here this afternoon?”
He waited for her to sit first, of course, before taking his place in the chair across from her. His size made the piece look like doll furniture. Her gaze traveled from the tip of his black Hessians up his long legs stretched in front of him, encased in biscuit-colored trousers. Her eyes lingered on his narrow hips and broad shoulders, before moving up to the decidedly irritated look on his perfect face.
Confound it. The man looked even better than he had five years ago. Five long years ago.
Lily shook her head to clear it of such thoughts. She folded her hands in her lap. “Tell me why you’re here,” she repeated. “And I shall attempt to seem as if I care what you have to say.” She smiled prettily.
Colton’s eyes narrowed. “I’d be surprised, Countess, if you did not already know the reason for my call.”
She bristled at his not-so- subtle emphasis on her title. If he hoped for a reaction to his veiled barb, he was about to be disappointed. The title was hers. She’d paid for it dearly.
She refused to let him see it bothered her. “Is that so? Should I guess then? Stop me as soon as I am correct.” She took a deep breath, prepared to rattle off a list of innocuous motives.
He thrust up a palm, stopping her. “That is unnecessary. I’m here to discuss a certain pamphlet that has been circulating in the company of young, unmarried females. A pamphlet entitled Secrets of a Wedding Night.”
Lily kept her face blank. As if on cue, the butler carried in a tea tray and set it on the table in front of her. “Thank you, Evans.”
Lily busied herself with pouring the tea. “Hmm. Secrets of a Wedding Night. Yes, I’ve heard rumors of that scandalous bit of writing.”
Colton crossed his long legs at the ankles. Casual. Perhaps too casual. She could be that casual if she chose.
“I assume you have also heard, then, my lady, that you are widely rumored to be the author of that particular piece.”
She kept her eyes downcast and dropped only one costly lump of sugar into her teacup. She stirred slowly, set the tiny silver spoon aside, and raised her chin to stare him in the eye.
“Me?” she asked in a falsely shocked voice.
“Yes, everyone knows you and Viscount Medford are thick as thieves. He’s been known to publish that sort of drivel.”
“Keeping track of my friendships, are you, my lord?”
“Only when it affects me, my lady.”
She clucked her tongue. “Ghastly thing, gossip.”
“Well?” His voice held an edge.
This called for an innocent look, and Lily just so happened to have perfected an innocent look. “What are you asking, my lord?” Positively saintly.
His black eyebrow arched, his gaze pinning her in a way that made her teacup shake a bit on the saucer. Drat! She hastily set the cup on the table and snatched her hands away.
“Did you write it?” He drew out the words slowly. His deep voice echoed off the salon’s aging wallpaper.
“My, my, my, Lord Colton.” Thank heavens she’d also perfected tinkling laughter. “I must say you’re the very first person to come out and ask me.” Disconcerting. Most disconcerting.
“Did. You. Write. It?” he repeated, sounding like a man who was used to having his questions answered the first time.
Lily retrieved her teacup and took a tiny sip. Ah, yes. This was one of the reasons it hadn’t worked between the two of them—one of the many reasons. “I’d forgotten you were this direct. Direct, domineering, and completely used to getting your way. Tiresome qualities in a man.”
He set his glass aside and snapped the leather riding gloves he still held in his hand. “I won’t ask a third time,” he replied with his own type of smile—a decidedly angry one—that Lily was sure he had perfected.
She stirred her tea with the spoon and spoke slowly. “I assume you’re here, asking these questions, because . . .”
His new smile was tight. “Because my affianced bride, Miss Templeton, just cried off, and according to her distraught mother, it was a direct result of her reading your pamphlet.”
Lily averted her eyes. A strange sensation tugged at her. Guilt? No. Not possible. She tapped the spoon on the side of the porcelain cup. Ping. Ping. Ping.
Hmm. This little episode had the potential to become quite messy.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” she lied. “Though I cannot say I blame Miss Templeton. Marriage is not all it’s purported to be. Awful business, really.” She shuddered.
Colton did not look amused. “Did you write that blasted pamphlet or not?”
Lily raised her cup to her lips, hiding her expression behind it, watching him. Why, the cad was nearly shouting at her. Not to mention the swearing. Did she write the pamphlet? Of course she wrote it, and she happened to be exceedingly proud of it. But she couldn’t very well admit it and still maintain her place in Polite Society. And she needed her place in Society, for Annie’s sake.
“Tsk, tsk. Such language, Lord Colton.” Another sip of tea. “If I wrote it—and I am not saying I did—I would stand behind its contents. Young ladies should know exactly what they’re getting into, after all. That pamphlet provides a much-needed service to the uninformed.”
She dropped her gaze. No use trying to make him understand. He could never know the fright of a wedding night, married to a man old enough to be your grandfather, someone you didn’t know, didn’t love. All with no choice in the matter. It was enough to shatter a girl’s dreams. Just as Lord Colton had helped to shatter hers, though she’d die before she’d admit it to him.
He clenched his jaw and leaned toward her, bracing his forearms on his knees. His maddeningly masculine scent found her nostrils, a mixture of horse leather, the barest hint of expensive cologne, and something indefinable. Probably that blasted confidence.
His voice was silky, yet menacing, and held a promising tone that made it seem hot in the room again. “That pamphlet is a pack of lies told by a woman who hasn’t been bedded properly.”
She gasped. Good heavens. She should slap him and order him from her house for saying such an indelicate thing. Instead, his words caused a rush of heat to singe her nerves. But she refused to be shocked by him. She would give him back as good as he gave.
Lily kept her eyes hooded and leaned toward him. “Surely you’re not implying that you are the authority on bedding women properly? Even you couldn’t possibly be that arrogant, my lord. Or do I give you too much credit?”
The growl that followed was meant to intimidate. Lily was sure of it. Instead, it served to delight. Finally. She’d scored a hit in their war of words.
“I imply nothing,” he ground out, mirroring her action by leaning toward her, his mouth merely inches from hers. Their eyes met. “I know exactly how to bed a woman properly.” Lily sucked in her breath sharply, but she refused to look away. He stared her down. “Furthermore, I accuse you of writing that libelous bit of rubbish, and I demand you retract it.”
Lily snapped her head to the side and bit her lip. Another flash of guilt—she was now quite convinced it was guilt—swept through her. He wanted a retraction? That’s what he was after? He couldn’t possibly be in love with the girl. Could he? She pressed a hand against her sinking stomach.
Giving her head a shake, she turned back to face him. “The fact that your fiancée allowed some silly pamphlet to scare her off may tell you something you don’t want to know, Colton. Or have you never considered that?” She swept her hands across her lap and squared her shoulders. “At any rate, this conversation is entirely inappropriate, my lord. I think it would be best if you take your leave now.”
Leopold’s furry head shot up and he growled softly, watching his mistress as if ready to defend her if necessary.
Lord Colton gave the dog a distasteful glance and made no move to go. Instead, he stared Lily down again, a muscle ticking in his jaw once more. “Oh, no you don’t. You cannot go about destroying people’s lives without answering for it.”
Lily stared right back. “Resorting to intimidation now, are you, my lord?” Time to put an end to this ridiculous conversation. And she knew just how to do it. “I realize you need to marry an heiress. Everyone knows your father left your estates completely penniless, and your own heedless gambling hasn’t helped the situation, but it seems you’ll just have to find another young woman to lure with empty promises.” She smiled a fake- sweet smile. “Perhaps one who is less well read?”
Colton slapped the black gloves against his thigh, his dark eyes blazing. Leopold propped himself up on his two front paws, poised for action.
Colton’s deep voice came through clenched teeth. “I want you to write a retraction. I want you to tell Miss Templeton what you wrote is only one young lady’s experience.”
“Souls in Hades want a drink of water.” Lily gripped the arm of her rosewood chair until her fingers ached.
“You may be used to ordering about your servants and your timid little Miss Templeton, but you certainly shall not order me about. I am quite through with being ordered about by men.” She leaped from her chair. Leopold sprang up and bared his teeth at the marquis.
Colton surged to his feet. He squeezed his gloves so hard, the whites of his knuckles showed.
Lily stretched to her full height. Though her own diminutive size of three inches over five feet was no match for him, she would not allow him to intimidate her. She had to strain her neck to stare up at him. “By the by, this is what it looks like, my lord, when someone fails to kowtow to you. No doubt it’s a foreign concept, but one that exists, I assure you.”
The muscle continued to tic in his jaw. “You will write a retraction.”
“Will I?” she asked, nonchalant, struggling not to let him see how deeply he’d affected her. Her hands trembled. “And how exactly do you intend to force me to do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her black slipper on the carpet, awaiting his answer.
Lord Colton pulled on one glove and then the other. He bowed to her, though anger still emanated from every pore. “I intend to prove to you that your bloody pamphlet is wrong. I intend to show you how a real man pleasures a woman.” He stared her straight in the eye.
Sparks leaped between them. Lily’s heart thumped in her throat.
“I intend to seduce you, Countess.”
Lily’s jaw dropped, and one second later, he spun her into his arms. She tried to push away, but his mouth swooped down to capture hers. Her hands struggled against his broad shoulders. The brush of his bold lips made her dizzy. Her head fell back. She stopped thinking. His hot, insistent tongue invaded her mouth, and Lily’s stomach dropped in a way it hadn’t in . . . five years. Blast it. She whimpered. Her hands crept up to wrap around his neck. She melted against him.
Lord Colton pulled his mouth from hers and took a step back. His breath came in heavy pants. His perfect hair was slightly mussed. Something akin to bewilderment flashed through his dark eyes. If Lily hadn’t been intently watching, she might have missed it. She touched her fingertips to her burning lips.
Colton turned abruptly and strode toward the door. “Consider that an opening shot across your bow, my dear. You have been warned.”
Devon Morgan descended the stone steps of Lily’s town house with ground-devouring strides. He mounted Sampson, his chestnut gelding, and tugged on the reins to head toward the park.
Who did that woman think she was? Lily, the dowager Countess of Merrill. Bah. She’d gained that title after a month-long marriage. She had nerve. She’d baited him— acting as if she didn’t write that blasted pamphlet—and in the end, had mocked him.
And to make matters worse, since he’d last seen her, he’d somehow managed to forget what a striking beauty she was. When she’d finally deigned to grace him with her presence, he’d been taken aback . . . very well, captivated, by her walnut- brown hair, violet- blue eyes that slanted up slightly at the corners, her dark fringes of lashes, alabaster skin with a hint of pink at the cheeks, and lips that practically begged to be kissed. A blasted incomparable beauty.
Clearly, he’d also forgotten she was such a shrew.
No wonder. Beauties often proved more trouble than they were worth.
Devon made his way into the park, nudging Sampson into a gallop. He passed the Serpentine and a field replete with daisies, before coming to a halt in a clearing that contained a mix of servants and his best friend, Jordan Holloway, the Earl of Ashbourne.
Feet braced, Jordan stood about twenty yards from a large canvas bull’s-eye and held a bow and arrow in his grasp. With sure hands, he released the bow. The arrow shot through the air, hitting the canvas with a thud. It shivered perfectly in the center of the mark. A footman rushed to retrieve it.
“Well done,” Devon called.
Jordan glanced up. “There you are, Colton,” he replied. “I thought you were lost.” Jordan took his time adjusting the leather straps of his gloves.
Devon dismounted and tossed Sampson’s reins to a nearby groom. He tugged on his own gloves. “Hardly. I merely spent too much time on a fool’s errand this afternoon.”
The corner of Jordan’s lip curved up in a mocking grin. “Ah, yes. So, was the poor little widow as charming as you expected?”
Devon snorted. “Poor little widow . . . More like a well-dressed viper. That woman is utterly mad.”
The footman returned with the arrow, and with the canvas clear, Jordan took another shot. His aim was nearly perfect again. “You cannot entirely blame her, Colton. After all, Merrill had to have been thirty years older than she.”
Devon pulled an arrow from a quiver propped against a nearby tree and took up his own bow. “Frankly, I would have thought more like forty years older.” He squinted at the target.
“And she was what? Seventeen? It’s no wonder she wrote so eloquently on the ills of the modern marriage.” Jordan laughed and shook his head.
Devon released the bow. The arrow zipped to tremble unfailingly just left of the center of the bull’s-eye. “She chose Merrill,” he ground out. “It’s difficult enough convincing a young woman she won’t be pounced upon and attacked, without that mad countess filling her head with a lot of nonsense.”
“Nice shot.” Jordan whistled. “Now that I think on it, didn’t you court the girl back when she made her debut?”
Devon scoffed. “There was no courting Lily. She was after one thing and one thing only. Money. Any interest she showed in anyone else was merely a form of amusement to her. The earl had the deepest pockets.”
Devon’s eyes remained on the target, but for a moment he was catapulted back through time to a ballroom and the sight of a remarkable beauty standing across from him, beckoning like some siren from the sea. He’d fallen for her. Hard. And she’d led him on a merry chase. A fruitless chase. All the while, she’d been planning to accept Merrill’s suit. His hands tightened on the bow.
Lily’s words from earlier echoed in Devon’s brain. “You’ll just have to find another young woman to lure with empty promises.” What the hell had she meant by that? She was the one who had lured him with empty promises, damn it. She’d twisted everything. Just like a woman.
Gone was the girl with the sparkling eyes, the lilting laughter, and sweet tenderness he’d once thought could save him. Gone was the young lady who had appeared to look beyond the callous assumptions of Society. And in her place was a jaded she-devil. A mocking widow with a rapier for a tongue. But he’d be damned before he let her affect him.
Jordan hefted his bow in his hands and took aim again. “She’s always been a beauty. It’s no wonder you were interested.”
His words shook Devon from his reverie. He was no longer the twenty- six-year-old who had followed Lily around as though he were just out of the schoolroom. No, he was a man now and when he’d considered marriage this time, he’d made the decision with his head, not his idiotic heart. He eyed his friend carefully. “Interested? Yes. Serious? No. All I want from that woman now is for her to dine upon her words.”
Jordan’s shout of laughter echoed through the nearby trees. “So, the merry widow didn’t agree to write a retraction, did she? Why does that not surprise me? Take heart. It’s not as if she can stop marriage for all time, though God knows I wouldn’t object if she did. A hideous matter, marriage, nothing good can come of it.”
Devon grunted. “Yes. Well. I’m not as fortunate as you, Ashbourne. I have no siblings. You’re the closest thing to a brother I’ll ever have. I must produce a legitimate heir.”
The truth was, the two of them had often been mistaken for brothers. Both were tall with similar muscular builds. Jordan’s hair was more of a dark brown, not Devon’s black, and Jordan’s eyes were gray, but they’d been told on more than one occasion what striking figures they cut together.
Jordan clapped him on the back. “I do thank my brothers for being born every time I see them. But as to your predicament, why you insist upon letting everyone in town think you’re destitute when you have more money than I do, for God’s sake, eludes me. You’ve been gambling in the back alleys for years and won a bloody indecent fortune doing it, yet you act as if you’ve never played a game of cards in your life when you’re in the clubs of St. James.”
Jordan motioned to a second footman to pour him a drink and the servant hurried to a small table perched on the grass between two trees. He poured two glasses of brandy and returned to hand them to the two men.
Devon took his first sip and tried not to think about the brandy he’d had earlier, or who had served it to him. “I’ll give no one the satisfaction of judging me based on how much money they think I have. I’ll never forget how my father was treated when he was penniless. Everyone is pleased to assume I live on an indecent amount of credit, and I’ve no intention of disabusing them of that notion.”
Jordan took a sip of his own drink. “Have it your way. Surely Miss Templeton’s mother will convince the girl to come to her senses. Though I’m sure she’d do so much more quickly if she knew her intended fiancé was as rich as Croesus in addition to holding one of the most esteemed titles in the country.”
“That’s just it, Ashbourne.” Devon’s voice was tight. “I don’t want a wife who is obsessed with the size of my pockets. I want a wife who wants to marry me. I cannot hide my title, but I can damn well hide my fortune.”
Jordan sipped his drink. “Fine. What’s your next move, then, now that Lady Merrill has refused to write a retraction?”
“She will write a retraction all right,” Devon promised. He scrubbed a hand through his hair. Damn it. His frustration wasn’t even about Miss Templeton, or the retraction. He’d known that from the moment he’d seen Lily again. In truth, he’d been nothing but relieved when his fiancée had cried off. Miss Templeton’s family was rich, but he’d never been entirely sure she hadn’t wanted him for his title alone. And blast it all, Lily was right. The fact that Miss Templeton had allowed some silly pamphlet to scare her off just proved she was unsuitable.
No, it wasn’t about Miss Templeton at all. It was Lily he couldn’t take. She’d nearly destroyed him once. He refused to allow her to do it again.
Jordan propped his bow against the nearest tree. “What do you intend to do? Write the retraction for her and sign her name?” He paused, quirking a brow. “You know? That’s not a half bad idea.” He took another drink.
Devon shook his head. “No, damn it. I intend to bed her.”
Jordan spit the brandy. “The devil you say!”
“I was angry. I couldn’t think of anything else to threaten her with.”
Slapping his open palm against his chest, Jordan wheezed. “You mean you told her you intend to bed her?”
A single nod this time.
“Well, well, well. This just went from interesting to fascinating. What, pray tell, did she reply?” Jordan leaned back against the tree, still cradling the drink in his hand.
Devon shrugged. “I didn’t give her a chance to say anything.”
“I daresay, this shall be the most diverting sport in all of London this Season,” Jordan replied.
Devon raked a hand through his hair again. “This is not about sport. This is about proving that woman wrong and keeping her from interfering in my personal life.”
“I’d say it’s more than personal if you intend to bed her.” Jordan chuckled.
Devon rolled his eyes.
“And it won’t be easy,” Jordan continued. “Seems you’ve made a contest out of bedding a woman who’s being courted by nearly every eligible bachelor in town. They say she’s spurned them all.”
Devon snorted. “Oh, I know all too well how she can lead a man on. I was duped by her once. I will not make the same mistake again.”
But another thought occurred to him. The threat of seduction may have been impetuous, but it would give Devon the perfect opportunity to finally seek his revenge against Lily Andrews. He would shame her. Make her want him and then toss her aside. She rejected him cruelly five years ago. This time, he would be the one to reject her.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” Jordan said. “These days, you’re known for your rakishness while Lady Merrill is known for her disdain of men. The game is under way, and two more perfectly matched opponents there could not be.”
Devon finished his drink in one hefty swallow. “It’s not a contest.” He handed his glass to the timid footman, grabbed up his bow, and hefted it to his shoulder. “But if it were . . . make no mistake as to who the victor would be.”
“Not to worry. My money’s on you, Colton.” Jordan’s eyebrow shot up. “Speaking of contests, when is your next appointment in the Rookery?”
The Rookery. Devon released the bow and the arrow zinged through the air. It missed the target entirely and landed in the soft grass behind the trees. “The day after tomorrow,” he answered under his breath, lowering his arm. “Thank God I’m almost finished. Once that damned promise has been fulfilled, I’ll never set foot in that detestable part of town again.”
Sweets from Viscount Barton, a poem from Sir Berry, and more vases full of lilies than one could easily count, but not so much as a bud or a sweet from the Marquis of Colton. Lily made her way past the gifts crowded together on the table by her front door. Leo trotted near her feet. She paused to sort through the silver tray full of calling cards one more time.
She wrinkled her nose. No doubt that rogue wouldn’t bother with flowers or calling cards. Why, she wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up shirtless on her front stoop. She smiled. Despite the fact that she might actually enjoy that, perhaps it was a bit too bold, even for the despicable Colton. But it still rankled that he’d announced his intent to seduce her and hadn’t so much as sent one trinket.
She’d acted like a complete and utter shrew to him, she knew. But something about his cold confidence brought out the worst in her. That and the fact that she refused to show weakness in front of the man who had decimated her heart.
“He’s not doing a very good job,” a young female voice piped from behind the vases near the end of the hallway.
Lily jumped. Clutching her chest, she slowed her breathing again and gave her younger sister her most formidable stare. “Annie! You gave me such a fright. Get out here this minute.”
Annie emerged from behind the table, a proud smile on her pretty, eighteen-year-old face. Her dark brown curls bobbed about her cheeks. “Well, he isn’t,” Annie insisted with a firm nod. She bent down to scratch Leo behind the ears. If there was anyone besides Lily the dog was devoted to, it was Annie. Just like Lily, the girl had a way about her with animals, always helping them and rescuing them. Over the years the house had turned into a sort of menagerie of Annie’s pets.
Lily dropped the cards to the tray and yanked her hand away. “Who is not doing a very good job at what?”
“Why, Lord Colton isn’t doing a very good job at seducing you. That is the word, isn’t it?” Annie whispered the last sentence, her dark eyes growing huge.
“Shh! Don’t let anyone hear you say such a thing.” Lily glanced over her shoulder to see if either of the servants was about. Thankfully, Evans was asleep in the chair next to the front door and Mary was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, Evans and Mary have heard worse, I’m sure,” Annie retorted. “Besides, they would never repeat it.”
Annie was right. The two loyal servants had been with the sisters since they were children. When their parents had died without a shilling to their name, the sisters’ third cousin, Percy, had tossed out both servants with no references. Lily, already a widow at the time, had taken them in. She might not have had much money herself, but she couldn’t allow her friends to suffer.
Now, Evans proudly served as butler of Lily’s dubious house hold, despite his penchant to nod off, and Mary was a lady’s maid with an unfortunate and pronounced memory problem. Despite their faults, both servants would do anything to help their mistresses. Their loyalty was unfailing.
Annie kicked at the parquet flooring with her slippered foot. “I don’t even know what ‘seduce’ means. And how many times must I ask you to call me Anne? I’m not Annie any longer. I’m all grown- up, about to have my come-out. Old enough for you to tell me what ‘seduce’ means.” She batted her eyelashes at Lily.
Lily couldn’t help but smile as she watched her sister. Annie was a bit taller than Lily. She had the same dark hair, but her eyes were dark, too, the color their mother’s had been. Lily had inherited their father’s violet ones. Annie was lovely and seemed to be growing lovelier by the day.
It was true that their parents had always fawned over Lily’s beauty, but Lily had always made it a point to tell Annie how pretty she was. And she was very pretty. Pretty and sweet. No doubt she’d be in high demand when she made her debut in a matter of days. Lily sighed. Then she would be busy keeping men away from her little sister. Hmm. Perhaps Evans should employ that stick Colton had mentioned after all.
“You’re still too young for that particular word,” Lily insisted. “And I’m in no hurry to teach you anything of the sort.”
Annie frowned before lowering her voice to a whisper. “You must admit Lord Colton isn’t doing a very good job of attracting your attention, however. These gentlemen have been sending you flowers, and sweets, and poems for years and you’ve shown absolutely no interest in any of them. Lord Colton is not even trying.”
Lily’s fingertips caressed the cards on the silver tray momentarily before she snatched her hand behind her back again. “I could not care any less if the Marquis of Colton ever gives me so much as a calling card.”
Annie picked up the nearest vase of lilies and spun around in a circle, her white skirts swirling around her bare ankles.
“Well, I should very much like the marquis to give me a calling card. Or even better, a bouquet.” Annie buried her nose in the vase and inhaled deeply. “That man is positively beautiful.”
Lily snatched the vase from her sister’s arms and slid it back on the table. “Good heavens. Of all men, you do not want the Marquis of Colton paying you any attention.”
Annie cocked her head to the side as if considering. “You’re right. The marquis is much too old for me.” Lily expelled her breath. Finally, Annie was making some sense. Thinking logically as she should.
“I cannot wait to have a nice, young beau sending me flowers,” Annie said. She twirled about again and paused to curtsy to an imaginary suitor.
So much for high hopes. Shaking her head, Lily pulled her sister into the nearby salon. “Think what you’re saying, Annie. And please remember, you do not have to marry. I will find a way to take care of you. A come-out is not all you imagine it to be.”
“But I want my debut. I’m greatly looking forward to it.” Annie’s pace slowed as she entered the room. Her shoulders slumped. “Lily, you’ve been exceedingly kind to me, taking me in after Mother and Father died four years ago, but I’ve been trying to tell you, I want my Season, I want a beau, I want flowers and sweets, and poems. I want to fall in love.”
Annie said the last word with such reverence in her voice Lily couldn’t bring herself to tell her there was no such thing. Annie’s happiness was the most important thing to her. And she would never knowingly shatter her sister’s dreams. Lily remembered the excitement of her own debut . . . vaguely. Annie had been looking forward to the questionable event for as long as she could remember, and Lily intended to provide it for her.
She had only to stave off the bill collectors long enough.
But she would be remiss if she didn’t at least attempt to educate Annie. Lily steered her sister toward the settee. “Flowers, and sweets, and beaux are one thing, but husbands are quite another matter altogether.”
Annie sighed and twirled around in another circle, her eyes sparkling. “I cannot wait to attend my first ball. Mr. Eggleston has already requested a dance.”
Lily jerked up her head. “Mr. Eggleston? Who is Mr. Eggleston?”
Annie plopped down on the settee, one leg tucked beneath her, an enchanting smile on her face. “He’s our neighbor, next door. I met him on Wednesday afternoon when Mary and I were coming back from the market.”
Lily pulled out her sewing and arranged the perfectly ordered basket to her satisfaction. She glanced up at her sister and frowned. “You should not be meeting bachelors until after your debut and you know it.”
Annie shrugged. “I couldn’t be rude. We nearly ran into each other. I dropped one of my parcels and he retrieved it for me. He’s so charming.”
Lily scowled. “Who are his parents?”
“He’s the second son of Baron Eggleston.”
Lily narrowed her eyes. “How old is he?”
Annie shrugged. “Twenty-one, perhaps.”
“And obviously impertinent. Mr. Eggleston should not be addressing you or asking for dances.”
Annie set her jaw in a pout. “I know. You’d be happy if I had never spoken to any man. But, Lily, don’t you remember? You were my age when you had your debut. You were my age when you were married.”
Lily closed her eyes. “Yes, of course I remember. Which is precisely why—”
Annie turned her head away, refusing to look at Lily. “Mr. Eggleston is quite smitten with me, and I have every intention of dancing with him.”
Lily expelled her breath in a rush, and then swallowed hard. She threaded a needle and began mending the handkerchief Leo had chewed a hole through the week before. “Lord knows I’ve been dreading it, but perhaps it’s time you read my pamphlet.”
Annie’s head snapped back around. Her eyes wide, she pulled at her curls. “No! I do not want to read it. I’m sure to have nightmares for weeks afterward.”
Lily bit her lip, considering the matter for a moment. “And that is precisely why I have not given it to you yet, but with all of your talk of beaux, I wonder . . .” She yanked the needle through the white linen square.
Annie slumped against the pillows and put the back of her hand to her forehead. “Oh, please, no more talk about the pamphlet. Let’s talk of something else, like my chaperone. Who will accompany me to the events of the Season?”
“A chaperone is entirely unnecessary. I intend to escort you myself. But I’m trying to tell you . . . You’ve romanticized all of it. It’s far less wonderful than you understand.”
Annie groaned. “I’d die an old spinster if it were left to you.”
Lily sighed. “Annie, listen to me—”
Annie sat up and faced Lily with accusing eyes. “That’s your trouble, Lily. You’re too calm. You show no emotion. You’re heartless.” Annie’s voice shook. “When was the last time you let yourself feel? When was the last time you cried?”
Lily pushed her sewing aside and reached for her sister, but Annie flung off her hands. “No. No. I’m going to my bedchamber.” Annie fled from the room, her handkerchief pressed to her mouth.
Lily watched her sister leave in a swirl of white. She closed her eyes. That was Annie’s trouble. The girl was too emotional, too easily hurt. Her sister would fare so much better in the world if only she would be less trusting, less quick to believe in myths and fairy tales like true love.
Lily slumped back in her chair and Leo trotted out of the corner to cuddle at her feet. “I don’t remember the last time I cried,” she murmured softly. But it was a lie. She remembered the exact time. And place. A morning, nearly five years ago when she had waited for Devon Morgan to come for her, to take her to Gretna Green and marry her. It was a trip that never took place. And all Lily had received was a note. But, yes, that was the last time she had cried.
And after she’d wiped her tears away, she’d promised herself she would never be so weak again.
Mary wandered into the room then, a feather duster in her hands, whistling softly to herself. Lily sighed and shook her head. Clearly, the maid had been eavesdropping.
Lily pulled her sewing back into her lap. “You might as well say what’s on your mind, Mary. I know you overheard my exchange with Annie.”
Mary turned to her, a fake-innocent look on her face. “I may ’ave ’eard a bit o’ it.”
Lily clenched the fabric in her hands. “Annie doesn’t understand. I can barely afford the cloth for the new gowns I’ve been sewing for her. I’m doing my best to provide her with a debut, but marriage . . . marriage is not what she thinks.”
“She’s young, me lady. Young and impetuous,” Mary replied with a knowing smile.
Lily sighed. “But I’m protecting her. Why can’t she see that? I was at the mercy of our dissolute father and my careless husband, but Annie . . . Annie doesn’t have to live
with the threat of a man controlling her.”
Mary nodded. “She doesn’t ’ave yer worries.”
Lily laughed a humorless laugh. “You mean the fact that we’re nearly destitute? And I sit in this house, day after day, struggling to pay bills while the ton assumes I’m living off a sizable dower?”
“If I could take yer troubles for ye, I would, me lady. But I’ve never known ye to not ’ave a plan.”
Lily straightened her shoulders. “Yes. I will find a way to take care of all of us, and Annie will have her debut. Impetuous though she may be.”
Mary squeezed Lily’s hand. “I seem to recall another young woman who was young and impetuous once.”
Lily scrunched up her nose. Mary’s long- term memory was spot on . . . unfortunately. Lily sighed. “Was I ever that young? Or that impetuous?”
Mary didn’t answer. Instead, she nodded solemnly. “I know ye’re in a terrible state right now, me lady. But I ’ave every confidence in ye. Ye’ve lived through quite a lot, already. Yer ’usband died, then yer parents, and then ye took in Miss Annie and us. But ye’ve been stubborn since ye were a small girl, and I’ve never known a problem ye couldn’t ’andle.”
Lily smiled at that. Yes, she was stubborn. She’d had to be. And true, she’d handled every problem she’d come across. To date. But this particular problem was becoming more and more difficult to master.
“Money. Money. Money. It’s all I can think about. I need money, not flowers and sweets and poems. Those I have in spades. Though not,” Lily noted, brooding, “from the Marquis of Colton. Intending to seduce me indeed. So much for his promises. Just like a man.”
“Doesn’t Lord Medford say the pamphlet is selling well? Ye’re sure ta make a fine penny off o’ it.”
Lily nodded. “Yes. That pamphlet may just save us. And not a moment too soon; the new earl may toss us onto the streets at any moment. We’re only fortunate he hasn’t done so before now.”
Mary cleared her throat. “May I ask ye a question, me lady?”
Mary’s eyes darted back and forth and her voice was a rough whisper. A nervous smile played about the maid’s lips. “I’ve yet ta read yer pamphlet. What was the secret of yer wedding night?”
Lily clapped her hand to her forehead. “Oh, Mary. If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.”
The maid picked up her skirts and moved over to the settee, hovering close. “Oh, ye must tell me,” she whispered.
Lily bit her lip. The look of childlike curiosity on Mary’s face tugged at Lily’s heart. She chewed on the end of her fingernail. It would be such a relief to tell someone. To finally unload the burden. Besides, Mary would forget the entire conversation in a matter of minutes. What would be the harm?
Lily gave the maid a sidelong glance. “Very well. Sit down, if you will hear it.”
Mary scrambled into the closest chair, her eyes wide, her knuckles turning white from clutching the arms of the chair. “Ye’re going ta give me a copy o’ the pamphlet?”
Lily laughed. “Oh, no, no, no. That pamphlet doesn’t contain the secret. Not the real one at any rate. The real secret is . . .” She cleared her throat and leaned forward to whisper. “That is to say . . . Lord Merrill and I never . . . well, we never . . . quite . . . consummated our marriage.”
Copyright © 2012 by Valerie Bowman
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