Excerpt from Never a Bride
Will This Be the Year?
Another Season opens and the patient Miss Mirabella Whittingham begins one more year waiting for her long-absent fiancé to return. One would hope that Viscount Stonehurst would appear this year to claim his bride. Hmm. Lord Stonehurst certainly knows how to keep everyone in the ton guessing.
—Society’s Daily Column
“Mirabella, what’s this I hear about you being free with your affections?”
Mirabella Whittingham froze at the sound of her uncle’s voice. Heaven have mercy, she was caught. And she’d bet the amethyst earrings she wore that Sir Patrick Stephenson was the young gentleman who’d given her away. She forced herself to remain calm and formulated a plan to pretend she had no idea what Uncle Archer was talking about. But as sure as she knew her name, she knew what he intended to say.
She wrinkled her nose and tried to come up with an expedient prevarication to explain her recent actions. Nothing coming to mind, she decided on the truth— at least part of it.
“Now, Uncle. I haven’t been free with my affections.” In fact, what she was doing would end up costing some young man a great deal when she was through with these London dandies.
But her uncle didn’t need to know that. “I’ve only kissed one or two.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized truth hadn’t been the way to go. Archer Hornbeck’s round face flamed red, and a telltale vein popped out on his wide forehead.
“Blue heavens, Mirabella. I can’t have your father or anyone else hear you say something like that, even in jest.”
Guilt pricked her. The last thing she wanted was her ill father to know what she was doing. At all costs, she wanted to keep her plans from him. If he found out, she’d never accomplish her goal.
Her uncle’s pale blue gaze darted across the empty dance floor, around the perimeter of the great hall and back to Mirabella. He touched her elbow and ushered her to a secluded corner of the brightly lit room. There was no dancing or music at the moment, but it was far from quiet at the party. Dowagers chattering, men chuckling and young ladies laughing behind fluttering fans filled the air around them.
Mirabella had to strain to hear her uncle’s whispered voice.
“I’m happy to be your escort while your father is ill, but I cannot allow this sort of behavior.” Indeed Archer Hornbeck was her chaperone for the Season, but he wasn’t her true uncle. He had been her father’s friend since Mirabella was a little girl, and had insisted she call him uncle ever since.
He was looking to make a match for himself and often found reasons to excuse himself from her during parties so that he could dance with an eligible young lady or wealthy widow. No doubt her father would be furious to know Uncle Archer had not remained faithful to his duty, but right now it worked to her advantage that he was neglectful.
“I won’t have gossip about you making the rounds while you are in my care.” Pallor washed his face. “If your father should get wind of this, he would look to me for answers.”
“You are a sweet, dear man to worry so about me.” She reached out and gingerly patted his forearm. Archer’s expression softened, and he sighed.
He took her gloved hand and squeezed her fingers affectionately. Looking down into her eyes, he said, “I’ll do anything for you, my lovely Mirabella. That includes stopping scandalous talk. But you must do your part and stop this...this kissing.”
Mirabella hated putting him through this, but she’d made her choice. She couldn’t stop now. Certainly not for fear of scandal. She had been an enigma in Society since she’d made her debut. She attended the parties and balls each Season, but she wasn’t eligible to make a match. She had been betrothed for six years to a man she had never met. A man who had made no attempt to marry her despite his promise.
“There’s no fear, Uncle. I’m sure the gossip will pass. It always does. Next week someone else will be on the tips of all the loose tongues.”
His thin lips widened into a forced smile. “I must insist that you don’t put yourself in a position to catch the attention of the gossipmongers. They can be fierce and unforgiving when given a reason. If any hint of this should hit the Society papers, you’ll be ruined. Not even marrying a duke would save you from their scorn.”
Mirabella kept a strained smile on her face, too, as she searched for the right thing to say this time. She hadn’t made her decision lightly, and she couldn’t make any promises. There were only five weeks left of the Season— five weeks in which to carry out her plan.
“You have no cause to fret about me, Uncle.” She slipped her hand from his. “This is my fourth and final London Season. By now, I know how these things work.”
“If that were the case, you wouldn’t allow yourself to be alone with a gentleman.”
“I have nothing in common with the young girls making their debuts each year, which is where all the attention will be. All of my friends have married and have babies to occupy their time.” She swallowed a sigh. “Given my unfortunate betrothal situation, I’ve come to accept my fate, so what does a little gossip matter?”
Uncle Archer opened his mouth to speak, but a bevy of young ladies suddenly rushed by them in a flurry of satin skirts. Mirabella noticed that a short, pretty blonde deliberately knocked his arm. When he looked at the young woman, the blonde smiled at him and winked before rushing away with the others. Archer watched her all the way down the corridor until she moved out of sight.
He cleared his throat and said, “There is no such thing as a little gossip. And of course you’ll marry someday.” She was thoughtful a moment while she considered his words.
“Perhaps when I’m old and gray,” she answered, stating almost verbatim what she’d overheard her fiancé say that day so long ago when she was listening outside her father’s library. She never saw Viscount Stonehurst’s face, but she would never forget the words he spoke.
“Nonsense. Your father told me he sent word to Earl Lockshaven stating that if his errant son doesn’t show his face by the last party of this Season he’ll consider the engagement broken, and the dowry will have to be repaid. You’ll be free to make a match with another young man.”
“Oh, Uncle, I am not a fanciful debutante anymore. Who will want me if the man I’m betrothed to won’t return to London and marry me? Everyone already looks at me as having been put on the shelf.”
“Pure rubbish, my dear girl. With your beauty and your father’s wealth any man would want to marry you.”
His words reminded her of Sarah and the reason she was having this conversation with her uncle. Her dear friend had had only a very small dowry, no beauty and no offers of marriage. Gentlemen had always confounded Mirabella. Why would they seek beauty and money when looking for a wife and ignore the kind of love and attention Sarah could have given? She would have been a devoted wife and loving mother.
Mirabella turned away from her uncle and looked at the crowd of people gaily dressed in their finest clothes milling about the great hall. Her fiancé perplexed her more than most. She could understand him rejecting her had they met and he had found her unsuitable. But he hadn’t broken the engagement, and he hadn’t come for her. She had not heard one word from him since he left six years earlier.
“Should Lord Stonehurst ever return to London, I shall be forced to marry him to please my father, but if he continues to stay away as he pledged he would, I shall be happy to remain an old maid.”
“Blue heavens, girl. Your father would never allow you to remain unwed and neither would I. Not marry indeed.” Uncle Archer took hold of her upper arm, and she turned to look at him. “I am your father’s closest friend. I would marry you before I’d let you be an old spinster.” He smiled. “I would consider it an honor.”
“An obligation would be more like it. Even if I didn’t consider you family, I couldn’t take you away from the ladies who are fighting for your attention at all the parties we attend.”
“I would be foolish to contemplate a match with another woman if there were any chance I could have you.”
There was something too serious about his tone. She stepped away from him and said, “Enough of this talk, Uncle. I need a moment to collect my thoughts before the next dance. Would you please excuse me?” His thick, gray eyebrows shot up, wrinkling his brow into a deep frown that settled his features in a questioning glare.
“Don’t worry. I shall behave,” Mirabella quickly said before he had the chance to protest further.
She didn’t tell him that she intended to collect her thoughts outside. She wanted to get away from the party, away from the people and the merriment that crackled in the ballroom. She wanted to feel the night air against her skin.
It was well past midnight when she slipped out the side door, having been stopped twice by young men who wanted to remind her that they were on her dance card. She took in a deep breath of air heavy with moisture. A full moon shone down on her from a velvet sky. Scattered mist lingered and wafted across the garden in front of her.
Mirabella gathered up the hem of her skirt and stepped onto the dew-covered lawn. She stayed on the stone walkway that split a lush garden. Her mind swirled with thoughts as she passed through a wooden gate and followed the footpath that led away from the house. Between patches of openings in the tall shrubs and blooming bushes that lined the edge of the road she could see horses and carriages. She heard snatches of muted conversations from the drivers who waited on nearby streets for their employers to call for them.
The smell of tobacco smoke and wet horse hair mingled with the fragrant scent of dampened foliage. Mirabella stayed well away from the wide hedgerow and, not wanting to be seen, stepped noiselessly onto the pebbled path.
Sarah should have been with her tonight. They should have been sharing whispered conversations about the cut of the young gentlemen’s hair, or the styles and colors of the young ladies’ dresses. Mirabella missed her.
Despite what her uncle had said, she was determined to find the man who had seduced Sarah and caused her death. And if kissing the dandies was the only way to get it done, so be it. As far as Mirabella was concerned, kissing was far overrated anyway. The pressing of dry lips upon hers left her cold and uninspired. She certainly hadn’t felt any of the warm, tingling feelings or breathless sensations she’d heard other young ladies whisper about in the retiring rooms.
Taking her time, Mirabella had carefully and accurately made a list of all the young bachelors Sarah had danced with more than once last Season who fit the description Mirabella had read in Sarah’s diary. That had been a wearisome task, which would have been impossible had Sarah not kept her dance cards that listed each gentleman.
At any given party there were never more than two or three names written down.One by one, Mirabella was allowing each young gentleman to take her into the garden for short interludes. While he kissed her, she would carefully brush her hand along his neck, letting her little finger quickly slip beneath his neckcloth in search of a wide, raised scar. That was the main clue she had to the despicable man’s identity. When she didn’t find the scar, she would just as quickly disentangle herself from the man and make her way back inside. The men rarely knew what had hit them since it happened so fast.
Perfunctory kissing had proven to be the only foolproof way Mirabella had come up with to get close enough to determine if a man had the scar. She had tried searching their necks while dancing, but it was impossible with the high collars and wide, fancy cravats and neckcloths covering the very area she needed to inspect.
Her plan had been progressing very well until tonight. All the young gentlemen she’d encouraged throughout the Season had been easy to manage. Some had even been polite and apologetic, but earlier in the evening Sir Patrick Stephenson had lived up to his brash reputation. After she determined he didn’t have a scar, he had refused to let go of her.
She shuddered remembering how tightly he held her, laughing and forcing her to remain in his arms while he kissed her cheeks, her neck and behind her ear. She was sure she’d still be fighting off his advances if they hadn’t heard someone approaching the secluded garden nook where they stood.
She hadn’t decided on this course lightly. When the idea first came to her, she had rejected it completely. But she hadn’t been able to keep the possibility of it from drifting back into her mind. It had consumed her for more than two weeks before she’d made her decision to proceed.
She’d labored over all the possible consequences. The price for success would be high. Mirabella knew she would be talked about and possibly shunned if word got out, but she hadn’t expected the gossip to start so early in the Season. The truth was, she had never been known for agreeing with what Society thought was of the utmost importance: parties, beauty, the latest fashions and whom to marry. Not to mention one’s reputation. She grimaced at the thought.
Her main concern was to keep her father from finding out what she was doing. She didn’t want to cause him undue distress in his weak condition. But no matter, she had gone too far to turn back now. She had made it through the easy part of her list. The rest of the gentlemen would be more difficult if Sir Patrick Stephenson was any indication of how the older bachelors behaved. In future encounters she would be more careful.
The distant sound of carriage wheels clanking over rough ground caused Mirabella to stop and look around. With a start, she realized she’d been so deep in thought that she had made her way past the back garden and had ended up on the street behind the house. Rows of high town houses and tall shrubs lined each side of the road.
She was without her velvet pelisse and the damp nighttime air penetrated the thin layer of lavender skirt and shift she wore, making her shiver. Her satin party slippers were wet from the dew-soaked grass. Thankfully, her gloves covered her arms all the way up to the capped sleeves of her gown.
Just as she turned to head back the way she came, a voice out of the darkness stopped her.
“Miss? Are you all right?”
Mirabella spun and looked up into eyes the color of shiny chestnuts sparkling from a handsome face. She hadn’t heard the man approach. Quickly she looked him over from head to toe to assess whether she was in immediate danger. He was tall and expensively dressed in a gray suit of lightweight wool. His starched neckcloth was simply but expertly tied. His unfashionably long, brown hair was brushed away from his face exposing a broad brow. A well-defined jaw-line accentuated a square chin. She guessed his age to be near thirty.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, when she didn’t answer. “Are you out here alone?”
From all she could gather, it appeared he was a gentleman, not a marauder. “No. I mean, yes.” Merciful heavens! She was sounding like she had an affliction.
“Which is it?” he asked.
There was an expression of concern on his features. She had never been any good at lying, and obviously tonight was no exception. “That is, I meant to say, I’m alone right now but I won’t be shortly.” As soon as I can get back to the party.
Mirabella quickly glanced back, but the house was concealed by a tall yew hedge. The street was lighted by moonlight, and there wasn’t a carriage or another person in sight. She was alone—with this persistent stranger. She should have been frightened, but she only felt a shiver of awareness.
His shapely dark eyebrows formed a curious expression. “I see. Are you waiting for someone to join you?”
In the bright moonlight she saw that his face was a golden shade of tan. Sun lines creased the corners of his eyes. His mouth was boldly masculine with full, well-defined lips. He was broadly built with wide shoulders and chest, yet his waist and hips were attractively trim.
Feeling more at ease, she met his gaze comfortably and said, “No. The truth is I was attending a soiree not far from here and decided to get away by myself for a few minutes. I walked farther than I intended and I certainly didn’t expect to meet anyone out here at this hour.” “I should think not.”
He regarded her a moment longer and nodded his head in understanding, though Mirabella knew he was thinking that no properly brought up young lady should ever wander away from anywhere without a chaperone. And he was right. But being proper had become less of a concern for her recently.
Mirabella realized he was carefully looking her over to decide if she was a lady from polite Society or merely a well-dressed lady of the evening. Heat rose up her neck at his blatant appraisal.
She tilted her nose back a fraction. “I assure you, sir, that this is not something I do often.” “In that case, you shouldn’t be left alone without a chaperone.”
She liked the sound of his voice. It was soothing, comforting in its richness of tone and a bit authoritative. There was no doubt he was British and a member of Polite Society, but she detected a faint American flavor to some of his words. She’d seen that same golden brown color to his skin on some of the visiting Americans she’d encountered in London.
“I’ll escort you back to the party,” he said. She blinked. Although she had been doling out kisses like they were sweets, even she recognized that returning to the Talbots’ party escorted by a stranger was beyond the pale. She’d have to slip back into the formal garden the way she had stolen out of it, and the sooner the better.
“No, I couldn’t let you do that. I arrived here safely and have no doubt I shall return the same. No cause to worry. A short stroll, and I’ll be there.”
She started to turn away, but he touched her upper arm and she stopped. It was only a feather light brush of his hand, and it didn’t linger, but the contact was enough to send sizzling tingles across her breasts. For reasons she didn’t understand, there was something strangely compelling about him, and somehow she knew she was not in any danger from him.
“What kind of gentleman would I be if I allowed you to walk back to the party alone?”
“A perfectly fine one,” she insisted.
He smiled. “You’re right. I am, which is why I want to make sure you come to no harm. If it will make you more comfortable, I’ll flag the next cab that comes along and have you driven there.”
Drive her there? Then she realized that he couldn’t tell that a party was going on in the house beyond the hedge and gardens. Thank goodness he didn’t know where she had come from. The less he knew about her the better. The last thing she needed was another man talking about her impropriety.
“Yes, that’s a good idea. I will wait here for a carriage. It’s not necessary for you to stay with me.” She made a point of looking up one side of the quiet street and down the other before settling her green gaze on his eyes. “I don’t see danger lurking around the corner, and I’m not afraid.”
He chuckled softly. “I’m sure you’re not. But I’m not going to leave you out here alone.”
Merciful heavens, why did she have to meet such a gentleman now of all times? What was she to do? He was deliberately not taking her word that she didn’t need his help. “That is kind of you, sir, and I’m most grateful,” she said, forcing a smile while trying to keep her tone calm and level. “But I truly don’t want to keep you from your plans.”
His gaze didn’t leave her face. “I’ve only just returned to London from a long absence, so I don’t have anything for you to intrude upon.”
A vagrant cloud sailed past the moon and white light from the sphere seemed to wrap around them, making her forget that she didn’t know this man, and that she didn’t want to know him. Why was she suddenly having these unsettling, womanly feelings?
“In that case, sir, welcome home,” she whispered. The sparkle in his eyes darkened and the corners of his mouth tightened just enough for her to see that something was wrong. Conflicting emotions that flashed across his face made her wonder if he was indeed happy to be back in London. And if not, she couldn’t help but wonder why.
“You’ve been in America,” she stated without thinking.
“Yes.” He sounded surprised, and his eyes brightened again. His gaze continued to hold softly on her face. “Each year we have more and more Americans visiting London, and I’ve become acquainted with some of them. I heard a trace of their accent in your voice. I see their sun in your face.” She lowered her gaze to his hands. “The color of your skin. Not many Englishmen have such a golden hue.”
“You’re very perceptive.” She tilted her chin a little higher. She was intensely aware of everything about him. From his slow, even breaths to the shine on his boots. She didn’t know why, but she wanted to drink in every detail of this man.
“It’s not a difficult thing to detect when you’ve spent time with Americans,” she offered.
“And you?” His expression took on a thoughtful quality. “It would be my guess that you spend the Season in London and the rest of the year in Kent or some other home, as do most Londoners. Am I right?”
“Yes. We have a home in Kent, but we’ve spent more than the spring and summer at our town house here in London the past couple of years.”
“Why is that? Most people can’t wait to retire to their country estates and begin their house parties.”
Mirabella looked past him to the rows of street lamps fading in the thickening mist. She could have easily told this stranger they stayed to be near her father’s physician, but she restrained herself from being so intimate with him. It was scandalous that she was talking to him.
Instead she said, “I love London, especially in the winter when the wind has a bite. The commercial district is always so alive with shoppers and businessmen hurrying about their daily duties. The shops are warm and toasty. In the evenings, lamplight glistens off the snow and makes everything so white.”
The last trace of concern left his face. “That tells me you like to take walks and tonight was no unusual occurrence.”
His smile was so genuine, so charming, that she was enchanted. She returned his smile, liking him more with each passing moment. The warmth she saw in his brown eyes and his caring attitude captivated her.
The clop of hooves on cobblestones and clank of carriage wheels caught her attention and forced her to glance away from his gaze. “Here comes a cab. That didn’t take long.”
“No, not long enough,” he said, his voice a rugged breath of sound.
His words brushed over her, and she was foolishly pleased that he felt the same way she did. The gentleman stepped forward and held up his hand, signaling the two-wheeled carriage. The driver pulled the horse to a stop in front of them. He turned back for her.
Their gazes held for a long moment, as if neither wanted to break away first. Finally he said, “The address?”
His eyes inspired trust. She wanted to give him her address and her name as well. She wanted to add that she could be free for a ride in Hyde Park tomorrow afternoon, but she couldn’t say any of those things
A light breathy feeling fluttered deep in her throat and she softly, reluctantly said, “I can’t tell you that.”
The corners of his wide mouth lifted in an amused smile. Her heart tripped. For the first time in her life she was attracted to a man. That he was handsome had nothing to do with it. She’d been kissed by handsome men and never felt this way. This man was kind, clever and cared about her welfare.
His smile turned into a devilish grin. “Then how am I to give the driver instructions as to how to get you back to the party?”
Heat flamed in her cheeks for the second time. What a besotted ninny she was to think he wanted to know about her and where she lived. For a moment, the warmth of his smile had her believing he was feeling the same wondrous attraction she felt.
“Yes, of course. Number one hundred and three Ferrington Place.”
The gentleman repeated the address for the driver, then opened the door of the cab and turned back to her. “Are you sure you don’t want me to accompany you?”
No, I’m not sure. Come with me.
“Quite.” She hesitated. “Though, if you’d like to give me an address or your name, my father will see
to it that the fare is repaid.”
“You wound me. I wouldn’t dream of accepting money for helping a lady in distress.”
He held out his hand palm up. She paused only for a second before she placed her gloved hand in his. She immediately felt warmth as he closed his fingers around hers. Heat shimmied up her arms, across her chest to flood her neck and face. Her pulse tapped erratically in her ears. For one untamed moment, she felt giddy, and that made Mirabella feel wonderful. She wanted to toss aside caution and ask this gentleman to ride with her. She wanted to step into the carriage and be cocooned with him in the darkness. She wanted to smile at him, laugh with him, and flirt with him. She didn’t want this to be the last time she saw him.
He lightly squeezed her fingers. An exhilarating flame of desire awakened inside her. This was her fourth Season of London’s parties and balls. She’d met gentlemen of all ages, all heights and with many different personalities. This was the first man who made her want to dance under the stars and steal kisses in the moonlight.
She gathered her skirt with her free hand and, with his help, stepped into the carriage. She quickly turned back to face him, but slowly let her fingers slide through his as she said softly, “Thank you. I wish I could repay your kindness.”
A rakish smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “You can.”
An expectant breath caught in her throat. Her heart tripped for the second time. Would he ask for a kiss?
No, she couldn’t allow it even if he asked. He was a stranger. But kissing gentlemen was exactly what she’d been doing since she devised the scheme to find the man responsible for Sarah’s death. Why not kiss one more? She longed to feel his lips on hers and erase all the trite intimacies she’d endured this past week.
“Yes,” she managed to say, feeling herself lean forward wanting, needing, already offering her lips.
“Promise me the next time you are at a boring party and want fresh air that you’ll ask someone to escort you properly.”
Her lashes fluttered. A flush surged in her cheeks once again as she drew back from him. She swallowed a shallow breath. “Of course. You can be sure I’ll do that.”
A dancing light played in his eyes and twitched the corners of his desirable mouth. “You look, somehow, disappointed.”
Now he was the one flirting with her, but she didn’t mind. She had always been circumspect when with a gentleman until this year. Now it seemed as if she were casting away all her inhibitions.
Her embarrassment faded and before she could think better of it, she boldly said, “I thought you were going to ask for a kiss as payment for your help.”
His eyes flashed with surprise. “As a gentleman, I couldn’t.” Then his eyes darkened with desire. “But as a man, if I had thought there was any possibility I’d receive one, I would have asked.”
Mirabella smiled, confidence filling her. All week she had been kissing gentlemen for whom she had no feelings whatsoever. Now she was going to kiss a man because she wanted to. She bent down and briefly touched her lips to the side of his mouth, lingering only a moment but long enough to catch the masculine scent of him, capture the taste of him. She heard his breath lodge in his throat.
It pleased her that she had surprised him. He reached for her, but she deftly leaned back into the carriage and escaped his grasp. “Thank you again for your help,” she said softly and pulled the door shut behind her.
“She allowed me to kiss her.”
“Truly? I kissed her, too.”
“All I can add is that she is a delicious morsel, and I plan to have a go at walking with her in the garden.”
Camden Thurston Brackley, Viscount Stonehurst, sat back in his chair at Jack’s Tavern. He couldn’t help overhearing the conversation at the next table, but gave it little thought. He had his own kiss on his mind. After walking back to the gentlemen’s club and settling into the first chair he found, he had ordered a brandy. He could still feel the young lady’s invitingly tempting lips on the side of his mouth. He had been with his share of women and couldn’t understand why this one had affected him more than most. But she had. And he didn’t even know her name. Maybe that was part of her allure.
Forcing her from his mind, he turned his attention back to the conversation of three young bucks sitting at a nearby table.
“With our first kiss she was slipping her fingers down my neckcloth, trying to get under my shirt.”
“I’ve not yet had an opportunity to ask her to dance.”
“You’ll have to get in line. Every chap in Town is trying to get on her dance card in hopes of slipping out into the garden with her.”
Camden listened, slightly amused by the boasting. From their conversation it was clear that London Society hadn’t changed in the six years he’d been gone. Well, maybe some things. The bachelors seemed younger to him now that he was nearing his thirtieth birthday.
The dim lighting and masculine decor of the taproom hadn’t changed over the years. Neither had the heavy smells of liquor and cooked food or the constant drone of hushed conversations and muted laughter coming from the gaming tables in the next room. Many were the times years ago when he would sit in this very club with his friends and discuss the latest debutantes. The ones bold enough to allow kisses were always a favorite topic of conversations. Camden didn’t pity the young lady they were discussing. No doubt she was enjoying the attention and assumed she could still make an acceptable match.
He knew from experience that for some women one man just wasn’t enough, but only the most desperate of men would offer for a young lady who was so free with her affection.
His thoughts drifted back to the young lady he’d met earlier in the evening. He’d known immediately that she was from quality and money. Although, he had wondered why she was alone on the street. He found it difficult to believe she had wandered so far away from the party simply because she was in need of fresh air.
The invitingly scooped neckline of her silk evening gown showed the pale skin of her chest and the swell of her breasts. He’d had the urge to reach out and glide his fingertips down her cheeks and outline her lips with his thumb. He wanted to reach over and place a kiss in the hollow of her throat.
At first it had struck him that she was running from someone, but he discounted that when he looked into her eyes and saw no fear. They were such a clear shade of green. The color reminded him of the fresh appeal of spring’s first leaf. Wispy strands of her dark auburn hair had fallen from the confines of the carefully placed bows and flowers pinned on the top of her head. She was slightly built but taller than most young women— and certainly more daring.
He liked what he saw when he looked at her and what he heard when he spoke to her. She was intelligent, friendly and bold to the point of being careless with her reputation. He liked the way the moonlight shone on her hair and glistened off her beautiful skin. He liked the way she teased him with the brief kiss that had just missed his lips. Had she kissed the corner of his mouth by mistake or design? Did she know that it would intrigue him until he discovered the answer?
He remembered how the limp silk of her dress had molded softly to her rounded breasts. Their fullness barely peeked from beneath the flimsy material. She held herself well with a slight tilt to her chin so she could look into his eyes. At times, he had felt she hadn’t wanted to look away—and neither had he. When she’d reached down and pressed her lips to the side of his mouth, he’d caught a whisper of the scent of a spice. Cinnamon or clove? He wasn’t sure, though he was sure that he wanted to see her again and find out. But that was impossible. He was destined for another.
The clink of glasses and good-natured laughter caught Camden’s attention. The chaps at the table next to him were on their second round. He had to stop thinking of the young lady who had intrigued him. He couldn’t allow himself to continue to dwell on her dreamy eyes, her heart-shaped face or her softly pale skin.
Camden sipped his aged brandy and looked around the dimly lit room, searching for a face he recognized among the members. Surely conversation with an old acquaintance would get his mind off her. If he didn’t know better, he’d think he’d been thunderstruck by a woman again, after all these years. And there was no way in hell he would allow that.
He had arrived in Town late in the evening and hadn’t wanted to disturb his father’s household in the middle of the night, so he had taken a carriage directly to the club his family had been members of since it opened fifty years ago. He knew he would find food, drink and a bed. After securing a room, he decided to go for a brisk walk to purge his senses of the salty sea air that clung to him from the long sea voyage.
His father, Wilson Thurston Brackley, Earl of Lockshaven, had finally gotten his attention by having his mother write a letter and plead with him to come home immediately. She insisted that he had neglected his responsibilities to his family and that as a man of honor he must come home. He hadn’t wanted to return. Not yet. He’d needed another year in America to solidify his investments.
But while it had been easy to ignore his father’s many appeals for him to claim his bride, he hadn’t been able to disregard his mother’s pleas that he marry the young lady he’d been betrothed to for six years.
Coming September 2010!
384 pages (September 7, 2010)
Originally published June 2001