This week, I’ll feature the second book in the Groom Series, Her Reluctant Groom.
The hero in this one is Marcus, Caroline’s cousin and the heroine is the neighbor, Emma Green.
Emma has found herself in a bad way. In the prologue, her brother-in-law tried to force himself on her and when she refused, she was thrown out of her sister’s house with nothing more than the nightrail she was wearing and her reticule. She went to stay with her friend Caroline who had sent her to Marcus’ house under the guise of delivering a box of random junk that belonged to Olivia. While she’s there, Marcus talks her into staying for tea and even mentions he knows of someone who might have a job for her. While they’re waiting to hear back about the job, Marcus invites her to dinner where a little betting takes place…
Standing, Marcus offered her his arm. “May I escort you down?”
“Always.” Emma lightly placed her fingertips in the crook of his proffered arm. “It smells good,” she commented as they neared the dining room.
He inhaled. “Yes, it does. Although, after our tea this afternoon, I’ll be cautious about what I drink tonight.”
“How could she possibly ruin lemonade?”
“Trust me, she could.”
“Do you know this from experience?”
“Yes. As the bitter tea we had this afternoon can attest, she’s fairly new to the trade of cooking. I don’t think her former employer asked her to do much besides make biscuits, roasted chicken, kippers, and coddled eggs. I’d wager our dinner will have all four of those dishes. Oh, and custard with a strawberry on top for dessert.”
She eyed him askance. “That’s not what you ordered, is it?”
“No. But I ordered her to make the best meal she could. And since those are the only dishes she can make that are decent, I wager that’s what we’ll be eating.”
“All right, my lord, I’ll take your wager,” she said cheekily. “I honestly doubt she’ll be serving biscuits and coddled eggs at dinner.”
Marcus stopped walking. “And what shall we wager?”
“What can you stand to lose?” she asked, grinning.
“What do you want?”
She twisted her lips and tapped a long, slender finger against her cheek. “I don’t know,” she admitted at last.
“Would you like a new gown?”
Her green eyes went wide like he knew they would. “No! Nothing so valuable.”
“I have nothing nearly as valuable to offer you,” she explained, breaking eye contact.
He placed his free hand under her chin and tipped it up toward him. “Does that matter? You seem confident you’re not going to lose, so wager anything you wouldn’t mind giving me.”
“I don’t have anything,” she said with a hard swallow.
In her eyes, he read the truth. Something terrible had happened between her and Louise, and she truly had no real possessions. None of the tangible variety, anyway. That must be why she was so willing to accept a gown from him, even if it was the furthest thing from proper for an unmarried lady to accept such a gift from a man who wasn’t her father, brother, or protector.
“What of a kiss?” he asked suddenly, the tips of his ears burning as unease settled over him. She’d never be willing to kiss him. He was a fool to have asked. “Never mind,” he mumbled, trying to hide his slip. “Just forget the whole thing. I forfeit. Tomorrow, I’ll send for the village seamstress.”
“No,” she said adamantly, shaking her head. “I accept your wager, Lord Sinclair. If you lose, I’ll have a pretty new gown, and if I lose, you’ll get your kiss.”
He stared at her. Unable to respond. Unable to move. Unable to think. She was willing to kiss him if—no, when—she lost. “That’s quite a bargain, Miss Green.”
“Shall we?” she asked, gesturing to the open dining room that was less than four strides away.
He nodded. “Of course.”
The dining room at Ridge Water was gigantic by anyone’s standards. When Marcus ate alone, he’d sit on the end seat. It felt like it was a mile between him and the chair across from him at the other end. He hated it. He hated the solitude and loneliness that came with it. He’d attempted to rejoin Society several times since his accident. But every time he tried, he was met with either queer looks and disparaging remarks, or snide and mocking comments about how he’d ruined his entire life when he was barely eighteen. Thus, he continued to live as a recluse and hadn’t ventured to London for anything other than urgent business for more than five years.
Before Caroline married and Olivia left, the three of them would take their meals at one end of the table. He’d sit on the end and they’d sit on either side of him. Occasionally Emma would stay for meals and would sit next to Caroline.
Tonight there would be a bit of a different seating arrangement. He’d ordered the footman who’d laid out the table to put the two place settings right across from each other. He just hoped the man understood he meant across the table widthwise and not lengthwise. If not, they would both be eating their meal in solitude or have to shout to be heard by the other. He grimaced. Neither of those options sounded particularly appealing.
Blessedly the footman had understood Marcus’ directive, and two settings were across from each other near the end of the table closest to the door. “Let me get your chair,” Marcus murmured, shooing the slightly shocked footman away.
Emma sat down and waited while Marcus took his seat and nodded for the footman to serve up the first course.
John, the recovering footman, stepped out from the corner and brought over to them a small platter with a big, shiny silver dome on top. He held it out between them and slowly lifted the top to reveal a warm plate of biscuits.
Marcus shot Emma a triumphant smile and swiped a biscuit.
Emma stared at the plate of offending biscuits.
“Go on, take one,” Marcus encouraged, grinning.
“I just can’t believe it,” she muttered, picking up the one closest to her.
John put the serving plate back on the sideboard and brought over two little dishes. One dish was filled with butter; the other contained strawberry jam.
Rolling her eyes and mumbling under her breath, Emma picked up her knife and slathered some strawberry jam on the top of her biscuit.
Three bites later, Marcus motioned for the serving of the second course.
John walked back over to them. This time with a much larger dome-topped platter. He removed the lid to reveal two bowls filled with what looked to be salad.
Emma smiled sweetly as she took her bowl and set it down in front of her.
Marcus slipped his off the tray and peeked at Emma as she stared blankly at her salad. He tried to keep his grin in check as he picked up his salad fork and speared a piece of slimy, brownish lettuce. A minute later, she pushed the bowl away. “I believe I’ll wait for something a bit more nourishing.” She glanced at the remaining five covered dishes.
Next, John brought coddled eggs, followed by turtle soup, then kippers, which was chased by broiled duck breast.
“Hmm, what do you suppose is under the last dome?” Marcus asked an impatient-looking Emma.
She shifted in her seat. “Roasted chicken,” she said flatly.
He frowned. Did she find the thought of kissing him to be that repulsive? “Do you want to cry off?”
“No.” She exhaled. “But what about a double or quits?”
“I’m listening.” He put his elbows on the table and leaned forward.
She wet her lips. “No matter what that last dish is, if I’m able to drink this entire glass of lemonade I’ll get two gowns, and if I can’t—” she shrugged— “I’ll give you two kisses.” She held up two fingers and shook them for emphasis.
Marcus glanced at their lemonade. Neither of them had so much as touched their glasses. Judging by how bad the tea was earlier, coupled with how terrible every other dish served tonight was, neither of them had wanted to hazard a sip of their lemonade. And a hazard is what it would be, he was certain. More than three times in the past week alone, he’d snuck down to the kitchen to make his own lemonade.
“Sounds interesting,” he mused, pushing his glass closer to her. “But if this is to be a true double or quits, then everything is to be doubled and you should have to drink both glasses.”
“I accept,” she said with a gulp. She looked at the glasses of lemonade, then to the last course that was still under the dome. “Do you mind if I drink this now? I’d like to use the roasted chicken to get the taste out of my mouth afterward.”
He crossed his arms and chuckled. “Whenever you’re ready, Miss Green.”
She picked up the first glass and brought it to her parted lips. She paused for a second, then tipped her head back and guzzled the liquid torture in the most unladylike fashion he’d ever witnessed. She brought the empty glass down with a hardthwack and glanced at the other while she wiped her sourly twisted mouth with the edge of her napkin. She glanced up at him and smiled weakly, blinking back the tears that had formed in her eyes from the sour lemonade. Without looking away, Emma picked up the second glass and proceeded to drink every drop in another long, continuous, guzzling gulp.
“You win,” he conceded with a dim smile, motioning for John to bring over the chicken.
Emma put her glass down and allowed John to serve her some of the chicken breast. “I’ll not cost you too much,” she said quietly.
He put his fork down. “I’m not concerned about the cost of the gowns. You may have any type of gowns you’d like.”
“Thank you for your generosity,” she said solemnly, stabbing a piece of her chicken.
Marcus nodded and ate his chicken. There weren’t many dishes his temporary cook could make, but roasted chicken was certainly one of them.
After dinner, Daniel, the footman Marcus had sent to Patrick’s, still hadn’t returned. Marcus pulled out his pocket watch. “We have at least half an hour before the messenger will be back. Shall we discuss those new gowns?”
Emma shook her head. “Marcus, you don’t have to—”
“Nonsense,” he said, cutting her off. “You won that wager. You’re getting the gowns.”
She frowned. “That’s not what I was going to say. I know I won that wager, and I’d hold your nose and force you to drink two glasses of that awful lemonade if you so much as thought of reneging on buying me those gowns. But what I was going to say was that you don’t have to make small talk with me while we wait. I know you’re probably itching to get off that stiff chair and prop your leg up on the ottoman you keep stored under your desk.”
“You’re right. I’ll just be on my way.” He scooted his chair backward and stood up. He’d been building castles in the clouds, thinking she’d want to talk to him while they waited.
“Wait, Marcus.” She gained her feet and came to stand in front of him.
He looked down at her. She wasn’t tall, but she wasn’t short, either. Right at six foot, he was what most would consider above average. Next to him, the top of her head barely reached his chin. “Yes?”
She blinked at him then an unusual, almost nervous smile spread across her lips. She cleared her throat. Then again. “Marcus,” she began, her voice terribly uneven for having cleared her throat twice before speaking. “I just wanted you to know the reason I drank all that dratted lemonade wasn’t because I didn’t want to kiss you, but because I need those gowns.” She came up on her toes and softly pressed her supple lips against his rough cheek.