This week’s book is His Contract Bride. If you haven’t yet read this one, but read (and enjoyed) Her Sudden Groom, this book follows Edward and Regina–Alex’s parents.
For today’s sample, I asked a reader who has probably read the book more than I have, which scene I should use and this was one of her favorites. (Thank, Jessica!)
To set the scene:
Regina has learned that her “love match” was actually an arranged marriage and her overly-scientific husband is trying to think of ways to make it up to her. She’s actually rather beautiful; she’s agreeable (for the most part); and well, things were going REALLY well for them before she found out. So he wants to find some sort of common ground between them in hopes they can have a friendship of sorts, if nothing else. So in his pursuit of finding her interests, he takes her on a series of outings. One of which was to a different kind of museum…
“What is this place?” Regina asked when the Watson carriage rolled to a stop in front of a grey stone building that was in desperate need of repair.
“The museum,” he said simply.
“From its appearance, this building looks as if it should be in a museum.”
“Well, it does.”
He descended the carriage then helped her do the same. “I wasn’t laughing at your suggestion, exactly, just the truth of it.”
She eyed him askance, and he ducked to elude her scrutinizing gaze.
“Shall we go inside and see it before it falls down about our ears?” he suggested.
Regina nodded. “I’ll be careful not to touch anything. I wouldn’t wish to help the demolition along.”
Another bark of laugher passed his lips. Then, when he caught sight of her, he cleared his throat. “Actually, unlike most museums, there are many things in here that you are encouraged to touch.”
“Excellent,” she chirped. “My aunt always did complain about my inability to keep my hands to myself.”
“Truly?” Edward had been watching her every second he could and had hardly seen her touch anything—even him. He’d vaguely noticed her featherlight touches previously when he’d escorted her somewhere and she had to take his arm, but now he couldn’t help but notice them.
“Truly.” They began walking and she continued, “As a child, she’d rap the back of my hands with a fan every time I touched something that wasn’t mine.”
Edward’s heart lurched at those cruel words and the broken tone that delivered them, and he came to an abrupt stop that would have made her fall to the ground if not for his quick reaction. “Regina,” he began, his voice hoarse. “Everything I own—” including me— “is yours to touch and inspect as much as you’d like. There is no reason to fear my reaction if you do.”
Regina’s brown eyes grew glossy. She blinked rapidly then nodded. “Thank you.”
He had no idea what she was thanking him for but nodded once. “You’re welcome. Now, let’s go inside.”
“Hullo, Lord Watson,” Loretta Bray, the owner’s daughter, greeted as Edward and Regina stepped inside.
“Miss Bray,” he replied by way of greeting. “Where is your papa today?”
“He’ll be back in a few minutes. Run to the butcher, he did.” She twisted her face in a most unflattering way.
“Has Mr. Moore been causing trouble again?” Edward guessed.
“Yes and Papa’s gwine make sure he gets what’s coming to him.”
“Right, well, Miss Bray, I’d like you to meet my wife, Lady Watson.” He turned toward Regina then gestured to Miss Bray. “Regina, this is Loretta Bray. Her father owns the shop.”
“Hello, milady,” Miss Bray said, demonstrating a sloppy curtsy. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice making your acquaintance, too,” Regina murmured; her curtsy flawless in comparison.
Edward’s chest swelled with pride. Regina, being a woman of nobility now, had no call to curtsy to Miss Bray. And, were she any other lady Edward was acquainted with, namely his mother or Lady Sinclair, she would have become waspish toward Miss Bray for her mistake. But not Regina. He put a possessive hand on the small of her back then just as quickly pulled it away when she flinched. “We’ll just look around, then.”
“Aye. There are new automatons in the back,” she called as they walked away. “Oh, and we rearranged some of the sculptures.”
Edward lifted his free hand to indicate he’d heard. “Have you ever been to a curiosity shop?”
He gestured to the left hall. “Good. I’ll get to witness your first experience at seeing—.”
“What on earth is that?” she exclaimed, terror filling her voice. She recoiled and jumped backward, her back slamming against his chest.
He wrapped his arms around her to steady her. He’d expected some sort of reaction, but this wasn’t it. “It’s a wax sculpture.”
“A what?” Her body was still tense as she stared at the wax image of a man wearing nothing but a brown piece of “leather” that hung loose in front of his bauble and whirligigs, held on only by a thin piece of “rope” that wrapped around his waist. His right arm was lifted into the air with his hand closed around a long spear with a sharp, bloodied tip on the end. His eyes were narrowed, his nostrils flared, and his teeth were bared as if he were running into war.
Edward loosened his hold enough to still keep her up but not make her uneasy by his touch. “It’s like a statue. But instead of being made of marble or stone, it’s made from wax.”
“My compliments to the sculptor. He did a fine job of making it very lifelike.”
“He did, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” she said with a swallow, her eyes trained on the man’s chest. Her body relaxed significantly, but he refused to let her go so soon. It had been since their wedding night that he’d been able to touch her without guilt niggling in the back of his mind, and for some reason, he didn’t want the moment to end.
“Are there more statues like this one?”
“No.” He released her. “Last time I was here, this was the only one like this, and I thought it was at the end.”
“That must be why Miss Bray was giggling,” Regina said.
“Of course,” he offered her is arm. “Would you like to see the others?” When she bit her lip and glanced over his shoulder, he added, “I promise that none are as graphic as this.”
“And if they are?”
“Then I’ll give you a boon and do whatever it is you wish to do tomorrow,” he promised, saying a silent prayer that there would be another, more vulgar image than this one. That way she’d have no choice but to let him into her world that she’d held secret from him.
“A boon,” she agreed. “But I get to claim it whenever and however I wish.”
He inwardly sighed. “All right, a boon of your choosing.”
“Very well, show me more men with wax in their ears, if you please.”
“Not just in,” he corrected. “If you want to see that, look no further than yours truly.”
Her face turned a pale pink. “I meant that as a jest, because—”
He placed a finger to her lips. “I know what you meant; and I found the humor in it.” He dropped his hand to his side. “Shall we?”
Daniel Bray, the owner of the museum, had somehow acquired just under one hundred wax sculptures, and Edward spent as much time as he could showing each of them to Regina before taking her into his favorite room.
“I must warn you,” he said, his face heating a bit. “Other than your bedchamber, this has to be my favorite room in London.” He couldn’t help the grin that divided his face when Regina’s cheeks flushed crimson.
“Edward,” she gasped.
“Sorry, m’dear, I didn’t mean to scandalize you—” he shrugged— “but it’s the truth.”
“That may be, but you needn’t announce it.”
He twisted his lips and made his eyes bulge; making a face that had always made his younger brothers laugh, then made a big show of looking in both directions over his shoulders then behind her. “I don’t see anyone who heard the announcement other than the one person I wanted to hear it.”
She lowered her lashes and her hands clasped together in front of her waist. “I think I understand now.”
Ignoring the way she’d suddenly clammed up again, he gestured to the room. “Shall I show you what a grown man would like to see in a nursery were he sent away from dinner and told to spend the rest of the evening there?”
“Dare I hope everything in this room is clothed?”
Edward gasped and smacked a hand on either side of his face. “Regina Elinor Banks! I do believe I finally understand the meaning of the verb scandalized.”
She waved her hand through the air—almost like she meant to swat at his shoulder but stopped herself. “Do be serious. That is nowhere near as scandalous as what you said a moment ago. Besides—” she pointed a slender, pink-tipped finger at him and wagged it— “considering the sculptures you just exposed me to, my statement wasn’t too far-fetched.”
Edward took hold of her extended hand and wrapped his larger one around it. “I promise there is nothing offensive in this room.” Holding her hand, he led her into the room. “See, it’s like a giant toy room. This is the part of the museum where you’re allowed to touch whatever you wish.” He picked up a wooden carving that had a ball trapped inside of a rectangular box which was made up of only twelve wooden strips along the corners and handed it to her.
Regina turned it over in her hand, frowning. “How did they get the ball inside? It’s too big to fall out the side, yet there are no hinges or breaks in the wood where it pulls apart.”
“It was originally all one piece of wood. The man who made this carved the rough outline of the box first and then carved the ball within, making sure not to take too much off of either the ball or the sides so the ball wouldn’t fall out.” He took it from her and set it back on the shelf, then picked up a heavy wooden plank that had six rows of small colored dots along the top, followed by a strip of green, then a large swath of brown. Along the left were two horses: one grey and one white. Holding firmly onto the side closest to him, he moved it closer to Regina.
“How intricate,” she marveled, tracing the details of the horses with the tip of her finger. She frowned. “Are these horses attached to the wood with wire?”
Instead of telling her, he hooked his fingers into the wire circles on the underside of the wood, and pulled.
“How extraordinary,” she exclaimed as the horses “raced” across the plank.
The smile on her face knocked the wind right out of Edward’s lungs. Of course he’d seen her smile before, but never beam. Not the way she was doing now. His chest constricted. Leave it to John and his eerie perceptiveness to see what Edward couldn’t.
“Do they always move like that?”
“No.” Edward used his left hand and moved them back to the start. “It’s meant to be a horse race. That’s what all these dots are—they’re the spectators.” He flipped the box over. “See, there are two different wires, one for each horse. Depending on which horse you want to win, you pull that string a little faster.” He turned the automaton back over and tugged the wires again, this time, pulling the top one just a little faster than the bottom.
“Do all of these do the same thing?”
Edward put the racing horses down. “In a matter of speaking, yes. But they’re all different, as well.” He picked one up. “These are two fishermen having a competition.” He quirked a brow. “Care to place a wager on which one reels in his catch first?”
She laughed. “No. I don’t place bets when I know who controls the outcome.”
“Wits and beauty, a perfect combination.” He set the fishermen down and sifted through a few vulgar ones of cock fights and a man being hanged until he found what he was looking for. “This one doesn’t have strings to pull, but dials to turn.” He took her hand again and led her to a little bench in the corner. After she’d made herself comfortable, he sat next to her and positioned the automaton so half was on each of their laps.
“What are they doing?”
“They’re about to fence.” He ran his fingers along the right side of the box. “Slide your hand along the wooden frame until you feel the ridges, then stop.”
“All right,” she said, her brow puckering.
“Very good. Now, when I tell you to, move your finger along those grooves and be sure to press hard or it won’t work.” He found his dial. “Are you ready?”
“I think so.”
At the same time, both of them spun their dials, and the men on the front of the plank moved their swords, either forward or back.
“What fun,” she exclaimed, spinning her dial with more vigor than he’d imagined she’d have.
“Be careful,” Edward said with an overdone frown. “You’re about to beat me.”
That made her laugh all the harder.
He threw both of his hands into the air. “You win! You win! Have mercy on me.”
Regina stopped. “Aha, the victor.”
Edward had the strangest urge to kiss her at that moment. The thought sobered him. She’d never allow him such a liberty outside of the bedchamber. “Congratulations, Regina,” he said. “You have managed to unman your husband. Your friends shall be proud indeed.” Particularly Lady Sinclair.
“I didn’t unman you,” she corrected. “I bested you.”
“Oh, thank you for the clarification.”
He shook his head at her sarcastic tone and set the automaton down beside himself. Who’d have ever known that the quiet woman who spoke only when spoken to had this fire inside her?
“Oh, look,” she said, reaching across him in a way that pushed her soft breast into his lap, dangerously close to something that wouldn’t be soft much longer if she didn’t sit back up. “Here’s another game.”
“Let me see.” He coughed. “Pardon me.” Ignoring the heat crawling up his face, he fiddled with the automaton she’d picked up while she straightened into proper sitting position.
“What are these fellows playing?”
“Tennis,” he murmured.
“Have you never heard of it?”
“Don’t worry, not too many care about it these days,” he said while he absentmindedly played with the dials. “It used to be a very popular game—the game of kings, in fact. But its popularity has been in rapid decline in recent years.”
“That must be why I haven’t heard of it,” she said airily.
What the devil? The dials turned without problem, but there was no movement. “I think this one might be broken.”
Was he imagining things or was she truly disappointed? He set the automaton down. “What do you say if I take you to see a real tennis match on Thursday?”
“But didn’t you mention at breakfast that you needed to get back to Watson Estate and check on your flowers.”
“Hang the flowers,” he burst out, as stunned as she was at his words. He exhaled. “Do you wish to go with me to see a tennis match in real life or will I be going alone?”
“I’d love to accompany you.”
Thank heavens, because he might do himself in if he were made to go to one of those dratted things alone. “Excellent, then.”
As you can see, the scene ends with him setting up another type of outing between them, but you’ll have to read the story to find out how their tennis date goes!