Banks Brothers' Brides Series, His Jilted Bride, Story Sample

Sample Sunday ~ His Jilted Bride

This week, we’ll start the second half of the Banks Brothers’ Brides with His Jilted Bride.

Red Beauty

The stars of this book is Elijah Banks as the hero and Amelia Bryce as the heroine.

A little set up on this scene: Amelia has found herself embroiled in a scandal and as a result, she’s being forced to marry Hiram, Lord Friar. Only he doesn’t show up for the wedding so in rushes our dashing hero who does what any Banks man would do: offers to marry her to save her from any further humiliation.

Elijah Banks clenched his hands into twin fists and willed himself to stay seated.

He shifted on the hard bench and took a deep, calming breath. It had only been forty minutes. Lord Friar could still arrive.

The silence that filled the room seemed louder than the crowds who gathered each night at Vauxhall.

Or mayhap that was just the steady tattoo of his blood pounding in his ears.

Would you relax?” his twin Henry whispered. “It’s not your wedding.”

And what a pity that was. For as much as he’d denied the possibility to his father when he was younger, he’d gone and fallen in love with Lady Amelia Brice. And desperately wished it was his wedding today. “It might not be my wedding, but she is my friend.”

Do you think he woke up this morning and realized he was about to marry a spinster?” one of the ladies sitting in the pew behind him asked with a slight giggle.

Elijah bridled at her remark. Amelia might be four-and-twenty, but she wasn’t what he’d consider a spinster. Besides, if anyone was getting the bad end of this bargain, it was Amelia. At least she was young and attractive. Hiram, Lord Friar was older than her father; and though Elijah had never actually seen the man, as he mixed in circles that even Elijah wasn’t welcome in, the man’s reputation of being one of the worst sort of no-good, lecherous scoundrel preceded him.

Henry lifted his eyebrows at him and Elijah jerked his gaze away. In a moment such as this, he wished he wasn’t a twin. For as odd as it might seem to others, he and Henry had the ability to finish each other’s thoughts and sentences with no difficulty, and with something as simple as an exchanged look, they could communicate every thought and feeling they had to the other. And right now, he didn’t want his twin to know a single thing that was racing through his mind.

Only five more minutes, then I can claim my winnings,” another lady said behind him.

The hair on the back of Elijah’s neck stood on end. What was she talking about?

He was saved from asking when one of the lady’s companions inquired.

Nothing you’d be interested in, Griselda,” the woman said archly. “Just a little wagering.”

You placed a wager on the wedding today?” the lady who must have been Griselda said in shock.

Perhaps.”

A little sputter of laughter passed one’s lips and Elijah’s temper flared. Amelia had been his friend as long as he could remember and he’d be damned if he’d continue to sit idle while she was mocked behind her back.

He shoved to his feet. “Excuse me,” he murmured, pushing his way down the pew and to the aisle, where he dodged a multitude of curious looks on his way to the back of the sanctuary.

Closing the large oak door behind him, he exhaled and swallowed. He could do this. He needed to do this. He owed it to Amelia.

Chancing a look down both sides of the hall to make sure her father or brother weren’t stirring about, he knocked softly at the door to her bridal chamber. “Amelia?”

No answer.

He twisted his lips and considered knocking again, then dismissed the idea. She was in there, he was certain of it. Quiet so not to startle or upset her, he turned the knob and opened the door.

Amelia,” he said, uncertain if his word was a question or a statement as his eyes fell over her quiet form.

She half sat, half lay on a floral settee that blended into the equally flowery wallpaper, wearing one of the fluffiest dresses he’d ever seen. Her shawl lay in a little pile of white silk next to her, which was exactly where it should be, not draped around her, covering up her delicate shoulders or the tops of her luscious breasts. He swallowed. She’d always been a beautiful young lady, but just now she was absolutely breathtaking as she sat there and idly twirled a fallen lock of her silky, dark brown hair.

He found an empty chair from across the room and pulled it over to her so he could sit beside her. At least when they were both sitting, the height difference between her petite five foot frame and his towering five foot-eleven didn’t seem so noticeable; and that was much the way he preferred it: equal.

I should have known he’d do something like this,” she whispered.

I’m sorry,” Elijah whispered just as softly as she’d spoken.

Don’t be. It’s not your fault he jilted me at the altar.”

No, but it is my good fortune, because now I won’t even have to halt a wedding and pray your answer will be yes. He shoved the thought from his mind. If she truly wanted to marry Lord Friar, he’d have stepped aside and blamed himself for taking too long to tell her how he felt. But since he knew as well as she did that a match between Amelia and Lord Friar would be the equivalent of a death sentence, he’d come today to make one last appeal. Not to her father, to her. Fortunately, Lord Friar’s absence had afforded him an opportunity to offer her marriage without the same risk of scandal or rejection.

He hated the bitter taste that word put in his mouth, but it didn’t change the truth of it. Amelia was no longer the simpering miss she’d once been around him, talking of love and marriage to him. Instead, she seemed guarded around him and spoke as if those sorts of feelings no longer existed.

Nobody has to know he jilted you,” he said, reaching forward to push the hair sweeping across her forehead behind her ear.

She shook her head; her grey eyes shining with unshed tears. “They already do.”

No,” he corrected. “All they know for sure is a wedding is not currently taking place. What they don’t know is if it was the groom who jilted the bride or the bride who jilted the groom.”

Amelia eyed him curiously. “No, I’m fairly certain they all know it was the groom who jilted the bride. My mother and father are both out there.”

Yes, and they are doing a wonderful job acting as if they’re waiting for their daughter’s wedding to take place.”

Acting?” she said, her eyes narrowing in on him.

Acting,” he confirmed. “See, your mother is sitting in her pew, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief while your father is pacing a hole in the wooden platform just outside the front door of the church. Both are playing their roles perfectly, giving off the illusion to the rest of the guests that they are just waiting for the wedding to begin any moment.”

Which seems to be less likely to happen as the minutes pass.”

Exactly,” Elijah agreed. “Which is why you need to act now before someone discovers your game.”

My game?”

He nodded once. “Yes, madam, your game.” He picked up her petite hand and wrapped his fingers around it. “I’m not as dimwitted as the rest of them. I see what’s really going on here.”

At least you do, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He ignored her. “I almost fell for it, too.”

Fell for what?” she burst out in hysteria, presumably due to her current situation, lacing her voice.

You’re jilting your groom,” he said evenly, meeting her eyes.

A shadow crossed her face and she cleared her throat. Twice. “What are you suggesting?”

I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just merely making mention of the fact that the wedding has yet to begin, and both the bride and the groom have yet to be seen. How does a guest such as myself truly know whether it was the bride or the groom who didn’t come today? How do I—a random guest—know that the bride and groom were not so in love with the other they could hardly wait another day and decided to elope?”

She snorted.

All right, well, perhaps that scenario isn’t very believable, but the other very well could be possible.” He took a deep breath. “Amelia, listen to me, I know you’re a very strong young lady and you come from a very important family; but none of that will matter come tomorrow when this is all over the scandal sheets.”

I know,” she said with a swallow.

Then see the sense in what I’m saying and marry me.”

***

Amelia’s jaw would have hit the end table next to the settee had she had the mouth of an ostrich. Elijah Banks was offering her marriage as a way to escape a scandal?

Elijah, you don’t have to do this.”

He laughed at her weak protest. “I know I don’t have to. I want to.”

Why? To make amends for dumping a bucket of cold water on me after I told your father that you wouldn’t let me ride your mare?”

No, nor is it because I feel bad about volunteering you to sing during the reception at Edwina’s wedding.”

I knew it was you, you scoundrel!” She clapped a hand over her mouth.

He grinned at her outburst. “What do you say, Amelia? Will you be my wife?”

Had his question been asked because he loved her, she’d have dissolved into a watering pot on the spot. But it wasn’t. Well, perhaps it was, but not love born of a romantic feeling; but rather that of a friend. A pang of sadness pierced her heart. Elijah was the only gentleman she’d ever wanted to marry. Since she was a young girl running around his parents’ estate when spending summers with her aunt and uncle, she’d fancied herself in love with Elijah. He was the reason she’d turned away any gentlemen who wished to court her, hoping one day he’d see her as more than a friend. How unfortunate he never saw fit to feel the same for her.

She bit her lip. Hard. She needed to put that thought out of her mind immediately. If she let emotions get in the way and didn’t take him up on his offer, she’d forever face a life of shame. But what of her other problem? The one that made this hasty marriage necessary. It had only been two weeks and she still didn’t know whether she carried a life inside of her yet. A lump formed in her throat. “I can’t.”

Can’t what?”

Amelia blinked back her tears. “Elijah, I cannot marry you and condemn you to—”

Nonsense,” he cut in. “Amelia, if I didn’t want to be here right now, I wouldn’t be. You know that. No amount of goading and threatening can make me do something I don’t want to do. I want to help you. You’re my friend.”

She inwardly flinched at his confirmation: she was just a friend. She knew that of course, he’d told her for years he was only her friend and had even gone so far as to help her find another gentleman to give her attentions to. Gently, of course. He’d never been cruel about her feelings or dismissive of her as a person, just the sincerity of a young girl’s feelings. But try as she might, she couldn’t fall out of love as easily as she’d fallen in. Only now, she didn’t dare let him or anyone know the truth. He wanted to be her friend and that’d have to be good enough. “But what if I have a secret?” she challenged.

He pulled a face that reminded her of his late father. “It’s not that you’re genuinely in love with Lord Friar, is it?”

Most certainly not! It has nothing to do with him.” At least it had better not. She’d still yet to determine the identity of the masked stranger, and for all she knew it could have been Lord Friar. Her stomach lurched at the wretched thought. “It’s something else.”

Elijah’s gloved fingers tilted her face up toward his. “As long as it’s not that, I don’t care what it is. Now, what do you say?”

A lead weight lowered on her chest. He might say he didn’t care about her secret, but how would he feel in nine months when she presented him with a child that wasn’t his? Or even sooner when he went to take her innocence only to discover it was already gone?

His deep sigh pulled her from her thoughts. “You’d be doing me a favor, wouldn’t you know?”

How could she be doing him a favor? “How so?”

Now that Weenie and Alex have both married, Mother has nobody to play matchmaker for except me and Henry, and if I’m married…that only leaves Henry.”

Amelia nearly laughed. “Your mother doesn’t play matchmaker, Elijah.” She played the role of confidant and voice of sanity to perfection, but never once had Amelia caught Regina Banks, the dowager baroness, playing matchmaker.

Just because she hasn’t yet, doesn’t mean she doesn’t intend to,” Elijah pointed out. “She and my Aunt Carolina have been spending a lot of time together recently. And there is nothing that can stop thatwoman when she takes a notion into her mind. So what do you say? Will you spare me the unpleasant fate that would befall me otherwise?”

All right, but only if you promise me something.”

Anything.”

No matter what happens, you won’t regret this?”

Elijah grinned and shook his head. “I accept your condition. Now we just have to sneak you out of here.” He walked over to a window and opened it just far enough to poke his head out. “Perfect.” He pushed open the window as far as it would go and motioned for her to come over. “All right, I’ll climb out first and then help pull you through.”

She cast him a tentative glance. “Is that really necessary?”

He stared at her as if she’d just asked the stupidest question ever. “Do you know another way to get out of here without being seen?”

No.” But that still didn’t mean she wanted to climb out a window.

Don’t worry, Amelia. I’ll be right there to help you.”

Wonderful,” she muttered as he threw his left leg over the window sill, then his right.

He jumped down and took a step back. “All right, Amelia, let’s see those superb leaping skills you used to boast about having.”

Had she a heavy object at her disposal—and not been in the middle of escaping what was sure to be the scandal of the season—she’d have brained him right then and there. With as much grace as her heavy satin gown would allow, she made her way to the window, pulled her skirt up as far as she could, and then threw one stocking-clad leg over the windowsill.

And that’s as far as she got.

Between the heavy skirts and the voluminous petticoats underneath them, she couldn’t move.

Elijah, help me. I think my skirt is stuck.”

He grinned at her.

Elijah, why are you just standing there?”

Just admiring the view,” he said with a wink.

Elijah!” She gave her dress a hearty yank, but it would seem her iron hoop stays were too wide to go through the window. “You can gawk all you want later. Just help me out.”

Promises, promises,” he muttered, coming up to her.

If she honestly thought he was genuinely interested in seeing her naked body, she’d be flattered by his staring and excited by his statement. But she knew better. He was just enjoying the fact she was stuck in the window!

He walked over toward her and reached his hands up inside her skirt to find the ties that would release her stays. The bare skin of her thighs burned at the feeling of his gloved hands brushing them.

Just cut them,” she blurted.

Are you sure?”

She’d never been more sure of anything in her life. “Yes. I have no idea why my mother insisted I wear these hoops anyway, they’re nearly twenty years past fashion.”

All right, I’ll cut them. Step back into the room and lift your skirt.”

How charming,” she said under her breath.

I try,” he said with a smile. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his penknife. “Ready?”

She nodded as nervous excitement coursed through her. It was bad enough she’d been jilted today. It’d be even more awkward if someone were to enter the room at this very moment and see her holding her heavy skirts up so Elijah Banks could reach in through the window and cut her stays away. If her bridegroom not showing up wasn’t enough to make her a laughingstock already, this particular situation would get her name whispered behind fans for generations.

The sharp sound of cloth—not just any cloth, but the cloth under her gown—being torn sent chills up her spine. Chills of excitement or danger or uncertainty, she might never really know.

Turn,” Elijah commanded.

She turned and he continued cutting the fabric until suddenly the sound of fabric-covered metal hitting the wooden floor floated to her ears.

Elijah put his knife away and then reached up toward her. “Let’s go.”

Without hesitation, she leaned out the window, wrapped her arms around Elijah’s neck and let him pull her out of the church and away from the public shame and embarrassment she’d be condemned to as a jilted bride.

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Banks Brothers' Brides Series, His Yankee Bride, Story Sample

Sample Sunday ~ His Yankee Bride

[Edited to add, I must not have scheduled it for the right day! Sorry. Anyway, since books have no expiration dates, I think we can say that samples don’t go stale, either, so here ya go!]

This week, we’ll follow the story of that overly bubbly, mother of all things scandalous: Carolina Ellis as she snags John aka Trouble and becomes a member of the Banks family in the book His Yankee Bride.

Red Beauty

To set the scene, Carolina and John have met a few days prior at a ball in Charleston where Carolina is just SURE he’s the one for her. Then, when she sees him again around town, she knows it’s true: he’s the one she’s to marry. Only her mother is not so convinced and when her father demands they return to the plantation, her mother is quite pleased to take Carolina home. But then, fate steps in again and when John shows up there, too, as a guest to her long-lost brother, Carolina is absolutely 100% sure he’s to be her husband and decides to talk to him about something of the utmost importance:

“John?”

The muscles in John’s arm tensed. Slowly, he turned his head around to meet Carolina’s soft brown eyes. “Yesh?” he asked around the two nails he was holding between his teeth.

“I was hoping to talk to you.”

He turned his attention back to the fence post and board in front of him, then took one of the nails from between his teeth and put it into position. “It’ll have to wait,” he said, driving a nail into the board he was holding.

She didn’t leave. “Why can’t we talk now?”

Why did she always ask him questions when he was working? Wait. He knew the answer to that. Because, other than the night of the ball, that was the only time she’d ever seen him. He took the other nail from his lips. “How about if we talk later?” he suggested.

“No,” she said, stepping closer to him. “I need to talk to you now. It’s important.”

He cast her a sidelong glance. What could she possibly have to say to him that was that important? He shook off the thought. Females, he’d learned, thought everything was of the utmost importance. He lifted the nail to the board and tightened his grip on his hammer, ready to swing. “And you’re sure it cannot wait until a more opportune time?”

She shook her head so vehemently that two tendrils of her curly hair came loose. “It’s about our wedding,” she said just as he gave his hammer a hearty swing.

John’s hammer collided with his nail.

Unfortunately, not the metal one that would attach the two boards; no, his hammer hit his nail, his thumbnail to be exact.

“Confound it all!” he burst out, tucking his thumb against his palm and curling his fingers around it.

“Are you all right?” she asked, her small hands reaching for his.

He pulled his hand away. “I’m fine,” he replied, but only if fine meant being in severe pain from hitting oneself with two pounds of solid metal.

She didn’t seem a bit put off by his reaction and reached for his hand again. “Let me see.”

“No,” he bit off. “I think you’ve done enough.”

“I don’t recall hitting you with the hammer.”

“You might as well have,” he muttered to himself, squeezing his thumb as tightly as he could.

“What’s that to mean?”

He gritted his teeth. “Nothing; just go, so I can get back to work.”

“But I need to talk to you.”

He stared at her and suddenly the discomfort in his thumb was quickly being replaced with another sort of discomfort, the one that had caused him to hit himself with the hammer in the first place.

“When did you plan to return to England?”

“As soon as possible.”

Her cheeks grew pink, and the smile that spread her lips was enough to make a man’s heart stop. “Well, not too soon. Weddings take time to plan, don’t you know?”

There she went again talking about a wedding. “What wedding?” he burst out, his stomach knotting in anticipation of her answer.

“Ours.”

“Yes, I heard that the first time.” He sighed and leaned back against the fence post. “Carolina,” he started. For some reason he couldn’t name or place, he preferred to use her full name. And it had nothing to do with her preferring it; at least, that’s what he told himself. “I don’t know what I might have said or done to make you think there would be a wedding taking place where I would be your bridegroom, but I’m returning to England—alone—as soon as I earn enough for my passage.” To be quite blunt, she’d have better luck waiting for her mother to grow a heart than for him to exchange vows with her.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like her; he did, well, in a way. She was as annoying as his older brothers used to claim him to be. But still, there was something about her… Something fresh and unique; something intriguing and intoxicating; something he didn’t want—nay, didn’t need—to discover.

“Mmmmhmmm,” she hummed in a sing-song tone, stealing his attention. “That’s what I thought.”

He scowled. “What’s what you thought?”

She gave a sigh worthy of an actress who’d spent her whole life on Drury Lane. “Your pride and your heart are at war, John.”

He knit his brow. What was she talking about? Nonsense, if he had to describe it. “Listen to me, please. I have no intention of marrying you.”

She looked unmoved.

Praying she wouldn’t ask him to elaborate further than what he planned to tell her, he said, “Carolina, for the majority of my life, I’ve been practicing what my brother Edward calls near honesty and haven’t knowingly told a lie for nearly ten years.”

She grinned at him. “See, you haven’t knowingly told a lie, which is why you’re lying to me now; you just don’t know it’s a lie.”

John groaned. “No. I’m not. Carolina, we’re from two entirely different worlds. We cannot marry.”

“Then just put aside your pride about accepting work from my father and then we’ll get married.”

John’s jaw dropped. “What, pray tell, has transpired between us in the last four days that has made you certain I planned to ask you to marry me?” he asked, matching her blunt tone.

She shrugged. “It’s your eyes.”

“Pardon? My eyes?” he asked, blinking.

“They told me so,” she said simply.

“I wasn’t aware eyes could speak.”

“Normally, they don’t. But yours do.” She grinned at the blank look he must have on his face. “See, I’m not one who puts a lot of credit in someone’s words. To me, their facial expressions—including eyes—say far more. It’s a gift, really. And your eyes, John Banks, say you want to marry me.”

“Really? And why have I never before heard of this—this—” he made a rolling gesture with his hand in hopes he’d think of a better word than preposterous— “unusual phenomenon of my eyes telling a young lady of my feelings for her?”

“Because you’ve never been in love before,” she said matter-of-factly.

John took a deep breath and closed his eyes, lest they tell her of the annoyance he felt toward her at the moment. He pinched the bridge of his nose then rubbed his closed eyelids. He hated the thought of saying something cruel to her; she might be an annoyance, but she didn’t deserve cruelty. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how he could explain what he was thinking without being cruel. “Carolina,” he said uneasily, forcing himself to meet her eyes again. “I think you’re a fine young lady, but I’m not ready to get married.”

“That’s all right,” she said airily. “Mother would never agree to a short engagement anyway.”

“No, your mother doesn’t seem the sort who would agree to any engagement between the two of us.” He sighed. “But that’s not the point.” Swallowing hard, he took her hands in his. “Do you remember when you told Mr. Cale you’d make a fine wife for someone, just not him? The same could be said for me.”

She recoiled as if he’d slapped her.

His eyes widened. “Wait, that’s not how I meant it,” he said with a ragged breath. “I think you’ll be a wonderful wife, but I’m not the husband you need. You need someone who—” He racked his brain for a positive adjective that didn’t fit him, but couldn’t be considered an insult to her—sadly, no such adjective came to mind. He sighed in frustration at his lack of finding the right words. Her brown eyes were still penetrating his and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Right now you think you’re attracted to me because I’m somewhat of a curiosity. But that will pass. In a week or two, you’ll wake up and realize that I was nothing more to you than a passing fascination.”

She didn’t respond, and that bothered him more than if she had. The workings of her mind were a puzzle he doubted even Edward could solve. He nearly snorted. That wasn’t much of a stretch. Edward had the hardest time determining his own wife’s feelings and desires. In fact, it was John who had to help him. But, as easy as it was to recognize what did and didn’t interest Regina, where Carolina was concerned, he was at a loss. The only thing he knew for certain was that while she was the most beautiful creature he’d ever laid eyes on, she was also the most willful and brazen. How fortunate for him she had somehow taken into that unusual mind of hers the notion that one day, presumably in the not-so-distant future, they would be wed.

Her hands squeezed his a fraction tighter. “Very well. I’ll let you get back to that fence.”

Then, before he could have a chance to question her motives and talk her out of trying anything foolish, she fled.

Banks Brothers' Brides Series, His Contract Bride, Story Sample

Sample Sunday ~ His Contract Bride

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.

Red Beauty

 

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.”

Edward laughed.

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?”

N-no.”

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.”

Go!”

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.”

You’re welcome.”

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.

Tennis?”

Have you never heard of it?”

No.”

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.”

Oh.”

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!

Gentlemen of Honor, Secrets of a Viscount, Story Sample

Sample Sunday ~ Secrets of a Viscount

Because we just ended one series and are starting another, I thought I’d take this week as another break and feature my latest release, Secrets of a Viscount!

RG_secrets of a viscount_light bluew.sn

 

I know, it’s the first scene, but once again, I think it’s the best place to start.

June 1812

Gateshead, England

A sharp, scraping sound rent the chilly night’s air, jolting Isabelle Knight awake from her dreamless sleep.

Isabelle’s green eyes sprang open and her fingers clutched the bed sheets.

Another loud screech from the direction of her only bedroom window broke the deafening silence that had once again fallen over the room.

Her heart hammering wildly in her chest, she forced her eyes to the window. A billowed curtain of cream and lace and the tops of a pair of black leather boots was all she could see through the dim moonlight. The blood in her veins sped up, but her body was still paralyzed. Someone was breaking into her room and she was too frightened to do a single thing about it except remain still with her eyes locked in terror at the curtains.

Are you ready?” a male voice whispered in the dark.

Relief flooded Isabelle’s body. She knew that voice. It belonged to her neighbor Sebastian Gentry, Viscount Belgrave. Isabelle and her sister Rachel had known Sebastian since they were children. However, just because she’d known him nearly all her life and trusted him entirely, did not explain why he was in her room, nor why was he asking if she were ready.

Ready?” she queried, sitting up in bed and instinctively putting her hand over her chest to keep him from seeing any part of her that he shouldn’t.

Sebastian heaved a heavy sigh. “Have you changed your mind?”

Changed my mind about what?”

The elopement,” he burst out.

Shock, followed by anger, filled Isabelle. Rachel and Sebastian had made plans for an elopement? And they hadn’t told her. Of course they hadn’t told her. It was an elopement. That was the point. Elopements were about sneaking off and getting married without telling anyone.

She gazed at the outline of Sebastian’s broad form by her window; she had only a second to make a decision that would alter both of their lives in more ways than she could even comprehend at the moment. But the truth was, she was the daughter of a country squire in the most unpopulated part of England. Her prospects were slim at best. If she didn’t wish to become a spinster, or worse, marry a man thrice her age, there was no need to question the good fortune that had just befallen her.

I’ve not changed my mind,” she whispered, hoping he hadn’t yet realized he’d entered the wrong room. “Why don’t you go wait on the balcony? I need to grab something, then I’ll be ready.”

Very well,” he said crisply. He stepped through the open window to wait for her on the balcony.

Isabelle sat still for a minute. Did he not want to marry Rachel, either? His tone would suggest as much. With a shrug, she pushed to her stocking-clad feet and slid them into a pair of black slippers she kept under the edge of the bed, then grabbed her biggest hooded cloak and put it on. Though her room had been so dark all she could see of him was his outline, and she doubted he could see any more of her than that, too, she had no doubt that outside where the moon was illuminating the hillside, he’d be able to see her and know right away he’d fetched the wrong sister. That was the last thing she wanted to have happen.

Satisfied she could both walk and conceal her identity at the same time, Isabelle made her way to the window and tentatively allowed Sebastian to help her through.

How do we get down?” she asked, scowling at the trellis. Not that she was scared to climb down it, mind you. She’d climb to the top of the Great Pyramids on her hands and knees if it meant she could have someone as young, virile, honest and sincere as Sebastian for her husband. The problem was more of how she’d climb down the trellis without having to remove her cloak and expose her identity.

Not to worry,” he said, breaking into her thoughts. He pointed to the far end of the balcony. “To my good fortune I passed a ladder as I came through the garden.”

Isabelle nodded. A ladder would be much easier to navigate with her cloak than the trellis. “All right, then. I’ll just be on my way and wait for you at the bottom.”

Sebastian’s large, tanned hand covered hers just as her fingers closed around the top of the ladder. “I think not. I’ll go down first, that way I can hold the ladder steady for you as you come down.”

Pursing her lips and biting her tongue so not to make the retort that was waiting on the tip of her tongue, thus giving away her identity, she politely nodded her head and stepped away from the ladder. The exact thing Rachel would do.

As soon as Isabelle was far enough away from the ladder to give Sebastian ample room to climb down, he swung his leg over and descended the ladder so quickly she’d have missed it had she blinked. “All right, Rachel,” he called. He grabbed onto the sides of the ladder to keep it from moving. “Come on down. Nice and slow.”

Isabelle walked up to the ladder and halted. “Can you turn around, please?”

Why?”

Because if you’re standing beneath the ladder you’ll see right up my nightrail,” she stated primly.

He snorted. “In a matter of hours I’ll be seeing everything you have under that nightrail anyway. And more.”

Her face grew hot. She’d forgotten that little detail. If they were about to elope, they were also about to have marital relations. Unfortunately, her mother had never actually informed her of all the details, but she’d surmised from whispers she’d overheard between the servants that it involved both parties removing their clothes. She shivered. She was only sixteen and regarded Sebastian as nothing more than a friend, for her father wouldn’t allow it any other way, often reminding her of her place in this world—which was not at the side of a titled gentleman, for he would never return her love and affection. Therefore, there was no love or affection between them, perhaps a measure of adoration that she went to great pains to conceal. Instead they had friendship. And friendship would be a very acceptable foundation for a marriage, in her opinion. But still, the idea of him seeing up her nightrail—both now and then again in a few hours—made her face burn like it had caught fire.

Are you having second thoughts?” Sebastian asked from the bottom of the ladder.

Did he want her to have second thoughts? Or more specifically, did he want Rachel to be having second thoughts and cry off? Perhaps that’s why he wanted to go down first. It made sense to her. He could have held the ladder still from the top. He’d wanted to go down first in order to find one more way to scare her out of going through with this.

Steeling her spine, she carelessly threw her leg over the edge of the balcony railing (clutching the top of the ladder for dear life at the same time), and in the most disgraceful and unladylike way possible, descended the ladder, stopping only briefly three rungs from the bottom to make sure her hood still covered her face adequately.

Groom Series, Her Secondhand Groom, Story Sample

Story Sample Sunday ~ Her Secondhand Groom

I know, I know, for some of you it’s already Monday or very nearly. Sorry! I have been buried under a huge pile of receipts and invoices today making sure I do all my accounting for 2013. It’s been crazy and I completely forgot until about two minutes ago.

Anyway, today’s sample is from Her Secondhand Groom.

Secondhand_1400x2100 USA copy

 

To set the background, Patrick and Juliet met on a muddy road when his carriage got stuck and she was out taking her younger siblings for an educational walk. Patrick has three young girls who were acting decidedly unladylike the first time they met Juliet, and yet, she watched them for the afternoon. After hearing what a wonderful time they had with Juliet (who Patrick is somewhat confused about the identity of the two sister, but that’s for you to discover on your own), Patrick decides SHE is the answer to all of his problems and makes arrangements to marry her in lieu of calling in her father’s loan.

And now it is time for Patrick to enlighten his girls of the new arrangement and his splendid idea!

Patrick waited for her to ride off before turning back to Helena and Kate. “Can I interest either of you in a secret?”

A secret?” Helena shrieked. “Always.”

He chuckled. “I thought you might be interested. How about you, Kate?”

Kate just stared at him with her big hazel eyes in a way that would have made him feel bad if not for the good news he was concealing. She was still disappointed she’d had to leave the Hughes’ home yesterday without a promise of return, but he also knew he had just the words to make her look at him as if he were the bravest hero in the world.

Locating the nearest mounting box, Patrick sat down and pulled Kate and Helena down to his lap. Settling one on each of his knees, he grinned at one, then the other. “All right, since only Helena’s interested in my secret, I’m only going to tell her.” He winked at Kate before turning to whisper his news in Helena’s ear.

Helena’s response caught him off guard as she bounced off his lap and started jumping around, while shrieking something he couldn’t understand.

Turning back to Kate who just blinked at her older sister, he said, “Are you the slightest bit curious now?”

She turned her eyes back to his and looked at him with an expression only a five year-old could make. “I suppose,” she said in the most insincere disinterested tone he’d ever heard.

Hmm. That’s not quite the response I was hoping for. I expected more of a reaction from you. Perhaps I ought to just keep my secret to myself.”

Crossing her arms, she blinked up at him.

I need a wee bit more excitement, Kate,” he teased even though it was obvious she was trying her hardest not to crack even the smallest hint of a smile. “You must really be angry with me.”

She nodded and glanced at her squealing sister.

He gave the most exaggerated sigh he could muster. “Well, I’m torn. On one hand, I could just keep my secret to myself until you’re no longer angry with me; or I could try to charm my way back into your good graces by letting it slip. Helena,” he called out, grabbing the attention of his other daughter. “What do you think I should do?”

Helena glanced at her younger sister. “Keep the secret.”

Patrick shook his head. “And here I thought I was raising loving little girls,” he muttered. He ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, since I cannot teach sisterly love, perhaps one Miss Juliet Hughes, soon-to-be Lady Drakely, can.”

Kate and Helena blinked at him, both silent.

Right. Yet again he was speaking with words beyond their understanding. “I’m marrying Miss Juliet Hughes on Saturday.”

Immediately, the squealing, shrieking, screaming, and giggling commenced again, this time Kate joining in the celebration. Patrick spotted Celia on the old brown nag she was riding. He’d tell her his news when they were alone. Being the oldest, at nearly ten, she was the only one who actually remembered her mother, which meant she would probably be the only one not happy about the new arrangement. He swallowed. If only things had been different.

Papa,” Helena called, bringing him to present.

Yes?”

Will she like us?”

Patrick blinked at his little girls. Not five seconds ago they were jumping up and down with excitement, and now Helena looked like she was about to swoon. “Of course she’ll like you,” he assured her uneasily. At least he hoped she would. He shook his head. She’d like them. She had her own brood of younger siblings whom she seemed to like, poor manners and all. His girls were no different.

Helena nodded, her eyes still uncertain. “What will we call her?”

What do you want to call her?”

Both Kate and Helena stared blankly at him.

What would you be comfortable calling her?” he rephrased.

Before they could answer, Celia rode up and cleared her throat.

Patrick looked at her, and she gave a pointed look to the mounting block he was sitting on. Tentatively, he stood up, casting her a questioning look as he did so. “Uh…you do realize even with me not sitting on that, you’re still not going to be able to get down without some help?”

I know,” she said airily. “But even if you have to help me down, Harry says it’s good practice to use the mounting box.”

Patrick stared at her, dumbfounded, then chastised himself for even thinking of rolling his eyes at Harry who was reaching up to take Celia by the waist. He lifted her off, then set her on the mounting box.

That was absolutely ridiculous,” Patrick mumbled under his breath.

I heard that,” Celia said while her sisters giggled. Shaking out her skirt in the most unladylike manner possible, Celia looked over at her sisters. “Was there a snake?”

A snake?” Helena asked.

Celia shrugged. “I heard the two of you screaming like banshees, as Lord Sinclair would say, and I thought there was a critter of some sort.”

No critter,” Helena chirped.

Patrick opened his mouth to tell Celia he’d like to speak to her in private, but before even his first word came out, Kate started jumping around exclaiming, “He’s going to marry Miss Juliet! He’s going to marry Miss Juliet!”

Swallowing the lump in his throat, he firmly placed his hand on Kate’s shoulder to signal for her to calm down while he simultaneously scrutinized Celia’s face, looking for some sort of sign. This was not how he wanted her to find out. But he had no one to blame for it except himself. He should have told Celia first. Everyone―except him, apparently―knew a five and eight year-old couldn’t keep a secret if their lives depended on it.

Is it true?” Celia asked, her voice cracking.

Patrick gave a simple nod and swallowed hard. Celia was five when Abigail died. Following her death, Celia had spent several months quiet and distant. Of the three, she might be the most resistant to having a new “mother”. Sinking to his haunches in front of her, his eyes met hers and his fingers came up to cup her chin. “Celia―”

Before he could say another word, her arms wrapped around his neck and she buried her face in the crook of his neck. It took but a moment to realize her body was trembling.

He brought his hand up to rub her back. “It’ll be all right, Celia,” he crooned. “I know you miss your mother, but Miss Hughes isn’t going to replace her. She’s just going to…um…stand in for her,” he finished dully.

Celia’s body slightly jerked and she pulled her head back. “I don’t think there’s a difference,” she said in a tone that was far more even than he expected.

No, I suppose not,” he agreed. “What I meant was―”

It’s all right, Papa. I’m not upset.”

You’re not?” he asked, staring dubiously at the tears that streaked her face, and the memory of the tight embrace she’d just been holding him in flashed in his mind.

She shook her head carelessly, making her long black braids swing around. “No. I want you to marry Juliet.”

Then why are you crying?” he asked. He wiped a tear off her cheek with one long finger, then turned it around to show her the evidence.

Because I’m happy,” she said with a giant grin.

Patrick started. He hadn’t been expecting that response. “Those were happy tears?”

Yes,” she affirmed, nodding wildly.

Patrick blinked. Celia was so much like Abigail it was almost frightening. Abigail was the biggest watering pot he’d ever met. She cried when she was happy, she cried when she was sad, she cried when she was tired or overwhelmed. There was rarely a circumstance that didn’t result in tears from her. He shook his head. At least these were happy tears. He could handle happy tears. “So you’re happy?” he asked like a simpleton.

All three of his daughters stared strangely at him. “Yes,” Celia said loudly.

Patrick winced. “You don’t have to talk so loud. I’m right here.”

Oh, I’m sorry. I just thought you were getting to be like Lord Rutherford, you know the one who holds the horn up to his ear.”

I know who he is,” Patrick remarked testily, standing.

Celia shrugged and fingered the end of one of her long braids. “I’m very happy for you,” she said at last. “And I think you’ll really like Juliet.”

A slow smile spread across Patrick’s lips as a picture of that beautiful creature he’d seen reclining on that sofa flashed in his mind. He may not wish for another woman to love, but this woman had all the necessary qualifications for what he was certain would make him a good wife, and the girls a good mother. Besides her abundant beauty, she was educated at one of the finest schools in England. The fact that her father didn’t seem to turn a hair at Patrick’s arrangement for the marriage, was all the assurance he needed she was biddable―and beddable, too. A sobering chill ran down his spine at the mere thought of the repercussions of sharing her bed. Perhaps she wasn’t beddable, after all.

Papa!” Kate yelled, catching his attention.

He cleared his throat. “Yes.”

Can we go visit Juliet today?”

Not today. Miss Hughes will be very busy the rest of the week.”

Oh,” Kate said glumly.

Not to worry,” Patrick said, scooping her up and holding her against his chest. “Once we marry you’ll get to spend all the time you want with her.”

I will?” she squealed.

Chuckling, Patrick ruffled her hair. “Of course you will. You’ll probably spend so much time with her you’ll sneak out and try to avoid her.”

No, I won’t,” Kate declared, shaking her head for emphasis. “I could spend all day with her.”

That’s very good to know since you will be spending all day with her,” Patrick said easily. “See, in addition to being my new wife, she’s also going to be your new governess.”

Covers, Her Sudden Groom, Story Sample

Sample Sunday ~ Her Sudden Groom

This week’s book is my USA Today Bestseller: Her Sudden Groom.

Sudden_1600x2400 USA copy

I’m using the prologue on this one because I think it sets everything up so well for what to expect of Alex and his father, and just why an unusual sort such as Arid Alex is suddenly in want of a wife.

Watson Estate

April 1814

 

Alex Banks sat paralyzed as the cold fingers of death closed around his neck, choking the life right out of him. Gasping for breath, he reached one tanned hand up and slipped two fingers under the cravat-turned-noose that hung around his neck, then jerked, loosening its suffocating hold. Who knew that little scrap of fabric he normally wore only to appease the females in his life could transform into such a deadly weapon?

Well, it hadn’t really, but it might as well have become a hangman’s noose for all it mattered to Alex. He’d just been given a death sentence, as far as he was concerned.

Are you certain?” he rasped when he’d loosened the garment enough to catch his breath.

Quite certain,” his father told him apologetically.

Alex took his spectacles off and rubbed his eyes, pressing them so hard bright shapes burst in front of him.

Edward Banks, Baron Watson, put his glass of water on the nightstand beside him. Readjusting himself in his bed, he blinked then reached for the stack of papers on the bed next to him. “Here.” He handed the papers to Alex.

Alex jerked the papers from his father’s limp grasp with far more effort than necessary. “Sorry,” he murmured as he thumbed through the life-altering—nay, life-shattering—documents.

Leafing through the papers, his panic didn’t ease like he’d hoped; instead it escalated with each page he scanned. There had to be a way out of this mess. He exhaled a deep, shaky breath and patted the ends of the papers against the tabletop to straighten them back into a neat, even stack.

Placing the papers on his father’s bedside table, he slouched in his chair and ran a hand through his unkempt hair, giving it a hard, painful tug to make sure he wasn’t in a nightmare. No such luck. The nightmare was a reality, and he was only at the start of it. He glanced to his father, who was having yet another nasty sounding coughing fit.

There might be a loophole,” Father said when he was done hacking. His voice was weak and uneven.

Alex’s ears perked up, and he impaled his father with his eyes, waiting for him to divulge anything that would allow him to escape the equivalent of an innocent’s lifetime sentence in the Tower of London.

Father patted his aching chest and tried his best to swallow a gulp of water before looking at Alex. “You could marry another.”

Alex looked at his father, dumbfounded. He could have sworn he’d just read a betrothal agreement that linked his name to Lady Olivia Sinclair. How could he possibly marry another without: one, creating a scandal; two, being termed a cad; or three, being called out by her brother?

Father coughed again. “You only scanned the agreement. You missed the contingency part.”

Thank goodness,” Alex muttered. “What page is that on?” He thumbed back through the papers.

It’s on the final page,” Father said with a harsh cough. “This whole fiasco is all contingent on your being single on the date of your thirtieth birthday.”

Alex frowned. “Why?” He moved his eyes slowly over each word on the last page, making sure not to miss a single word.

His father at least had the good manners to look somewhat guilty. As guilty as one can possibly feign when one is on one’s sickbed, that is. “Well, you see, son.” He flickered a glance at the wall just past Alex’s left shoulder before meeting Alex’s eyes again. “Joseph, the former Lord Sinclair, and I were good friends. We went to Eton and Cambridge together and remained close ever since. We thought it would be ideal to have our children marry.”

Without their consent,” Alex muttered, irritation bubbling inside him.

His father frowned. “Marriages oftentimes are arranged. Mine was.”

I know.” Alex had always had sympathy for the plights of his mother and father. Neither of them had even had a chance to find a spouse of their choosing. Apparently, he was about to endure the same fate. How fortunate for them, his parents had received a much better bargain than he was destined to have.

Anyway,” Father said, breaking into Alex’s thoughts, “when Lady Olivia was born, I joined Sinclair at his house to celebrate, and in a drunken state, we marveled at the irony that she was born on the same day as you. Well, eight years later, of course.”

Of course.” Alex vaguely remembered the night of his eighth birthday. That was the night he’d snuck out to see his first mare and witnessed his father coming home foxed, singing the Hallelujah Chorus, and claiming to have some excellent news.

Hell’s afire. The “excellent news” Father was exclaiming about had been this confounded betrothal contract, binding him to Lady Olivia for life. Lady Olivia. Nobody could be a worse match for him than Lady Olivia. He swallowed hard, trying to return the bile rising in his throat back to his stomach.

Father coughed. “Sinclair and I thought it would be a brilliant arrangement. My son. His daughter. Our grandchildren. However, none of us knew just how shrewish Lady Olivia would grow up to become.”

A shudder wracked father and son simultaneously. “No one could have known,” Alex grumbled. Looks were one thing; personality was another. Alex considered himself mature enough to see past her always-tangled, fire-orange hair, rotund figure, horrid teeth, and absurd fashion choices. Her physical appearance, however, paled in comparison to her personality, which was enough to test the patience of a martyred saint. She was whiny, clingy, hateful, and suffered more ailments than he was aware even existed. Everything she did was completely self-serving in one manner or another. If anybody believed otherwise, they were a fool.

Clearing his throat, Father said, “That’s of no account now, son. Either you’ll have to marry her, or go ask her brother if he’ll honor the last page of the agreement.”

Alex’s eyes flew to his father. “Why wouldn’t he?” It was right here, combined with all those other suicide-inducing papers. There was no reason for him not to.

Because that was an addendum added some eight years later. It was the only page not originally part of the agreement, and it isn’t signed by a third party,” Father explained after a brutal coughing fit. “The originals—” he grabbed the stack of papers and pointed to the bottom of each page as he flipped through— “were all signed by Sinclair, me, and Richard Barnes. Barnes is a mutual friend who was there celebrating with us, and who happens to be a solicitor. As you can see, the last page has only my and Sinclair’s signatures on it.”

If he signed it, it’s legal,” Alex argued flippantly.

Not exactly,” his father rasped. “It could be contested, and it might not stand. Now that Joseph is dead and Marcus has taken his place, it would be my word, which won’t mean anything in a few weeks, I’d wager, versus a court.”

Alex gulped. He hated to think that in a matter of weeks, or even days, his father might be gone. Six months ago, Father had become ill, and since then his health had been declining rapidly. After several fruitless attempts to cure him, the physician concluded his condition was internal and medicine wasn’t going to help. Father took the news in stride and continued to read, talk about science, go down to dinner, and even ride his horse. It wasn’t until the past week he’d taken to spending most of the day in his bed, too frail and exhausted to do much more than read and go down for dinner. Watching Father’s illness progress in the past months had been terribly painful for Alex. “All right,” Alex said softly. “I’ll see what can be done for it now.”

Father pulled the covers up to his chin. “Son, I’m sorry I made that agreement. But if you can get Marcus to honor the contingency, you’re halfway there.”

Yes, then I just have to find a lady to agree to marry me in a month’s time.”

Considering that you’ll have to marry Lady Olivia if you don’t, I think you’ll find a way.” His father flashed him his best attempt at a smile.

That’s all the motivation one needs,” Alex said, twisting his lips. He removed his spectacles and rubbed his nose. “Why was I never told of this before?” His voice was flat and dry, almost disinterested, belying the nervous excitement coursing through him.

Father shrugged. “I always assumed you’d find a bride on your own, thus voiding the agreement per the conditions on the last page. With that assumption, I didn’t tell you when you were younger because I didn’t want to heap this upon your head then. As you both got older, I saw what kind of a girl Lady Olivia had become, and I assumed her father would let you out of the agreement altogether. However, since he passed away last year, I’m not sure you can count on that possibility. Her period of mourning ended less than two weeks ago and I received a letter from the solicitor yesterday. That makes me think the agreement has not been forgotten.”

Alex sighed. He couldn’t fault his father for not telling him this. The poor man must have been living in a delusion thinking Alex would somehow find a young lady who would actually want to marry him. When in reality, some would think marrying Lady Olivia was the only fathomable solution to marriage for a gentleman who had somehow acquired the nickname Arid Alex.

Smoothing the covers and rearranging the pillows, Alex did what he could to make his frail father comfortable before leaving his sickroom.

Dorset it was, then. He needed to go see Marcus post haste.

***

If you’ve already read this one and haven’t dashed off to go re-read it OR you haven’t read this one and haven’t yet dashed off yet to go get your copy, you might wish to go get a sneak peek at the new covers for my upcoming Regency Series: Gentlemen of Honor. The cover for the first book, Secrets of a Viscount, is being revealed today at Tifferz & Her Sisterz Book Reviewz.

Officer Series, Story Sample, The Officer and the Traveler

Story Sample Sunday ~ The Officer and the Traveler

I had this evil urge (unfortunately, I have to fight these from time to time) of posting merely the prologue on this book. Which, as you can guess isn’t very much “story” and it’s very short in nature. But because I’m a total sweetheart, cough, cough, I’ll post the entire first chapter. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!

Traveler FGOS

 

General Rigid’s looking for you,” Wes announced without ceremony a short time later as he came into Gray’s room without so much as a knock.

Gray shrugged. General Rigid, or more respectfully styled: General Ridgely, wasn’t high on his list of people to see at the moment. Likely he was only demanding Gray’s presence because General Davis had asked him to. He shuddered and met Wes’ blue eyes. “Did he say what he wanted?” The question was out before he could think better of it.

Wes shook his head and leaned his shoulder against the wall of horizontal logs. “He didn’t say much of anything, just walked over to the officers’ side and barked that he was looking for you.”

Grimacing, Gray rolled out of bed and straightened his shirt. His room wasn’t the best place for a man to hide, but in a deserted fort like this, there really wasn’t one.

Is there a reason he’s looking for you?”

Gray’s only response was to grunt. He had a good idea of why the man was looking for him and wanted no part of it. “Thanks for letting me know,” he murmured as he walked past Wes to leave his room.

Stepping out onto the boardwalk, he took a slow scan of the four walls of the fort. To some, it was a simple square made from extended log cabins that were all connected, yet separate. To others, it was their city, their fortress. To Gray, it was now a prison. A bitter taste filled his mouth and he choked it down. Yesterday, he’d have called it his fortress. His home. Now, with the appearance of one man, everything he’d loved now seemed tainted.

A chorus of obnoxious laughter sounded from the officers’ lounge, drawing Gray’s attention. His feet itched to carry him down the board planks and into the room where the men were playing cards and telling bawdy jokes, a ritual they did every day before dinner, then again afterwards until it was time for bed. Perhaps not the most sophisticated of pursuits, but enjoyable nonetheless. And in such a forsaken place as this one, a man had to find his pleasure where he could: cards, drinking, smoking, bawdy jokes, and once a week a game of rounders.

To some it wasn’t much of a life, but to a soldier accustomed to living so far detached from the world, it was their whole life.

He couldn’t join them though. General Davis would look there first. The second place would be his room, so he couldn’t go back in there, either.

Heavy, determined boot falls reverberated on the board plank. Gray snapped his head to the right; then just as quickly as he glimpsed the sun glistening off the metal on the front of General Davis’ shako he took a giant step back into his room, colliding with Wes.

What are you still doing in here?” he hissed at his friend.

You were blocking the door,” Wes said simply.

Gray sidestepped his friend and made an over exaggerated gesture toward the door. “The exit is clear, Captain Tucker.”

Wes gave him a queer look and lifted an eyebrow.

Gray ignored him, hoping he’d leave soon.

Would you care to tell me what’s wrong with you or do you not know, either?”

Gray forced a smile. “I prefer to keep my ailments a secret. It makes life more exciting, wouldn’t you say?”

I think that depends upon who you ask.” Wes sighed. “Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

I’m sure,” Gray said. He didn’t know how he’d do it, but he’d avoid letting General Davis know he was here. And may God be merciful if the man already knew.

He couldn’t say what it was about the man, but whenever General Davis was involved in any part of his life, everything always fell apart for Gray. As a boy, he hadn’t been able to do a thing about it. But as a man of twenty-five he’d be damned if he’d allow General Davis to meddle in his life anymore.

Peeking out the window by his door, Gray caught sight of the General’s booted feet as he climbed the wooden staircase right outside the door. He breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t even a kernel of an idea why the man was here, and particularly why he’d go upstairs, but whatever the reason was, Gray was thankful.

He opened the door slightly and waited a few seconds to allow the general to find the door he was looking for; then Gray would make his exit.

He frowned. What the devil could be upstairs that would be of interest to General Davis? Nothing. He could only be here for one reason: Gray. As soon as the general realized Gray wasn’t upstairs, he’d come back downstairs. That didn’t give him long to escape and chances were he wouldn’t be able to if he walked out the door and down the board planks. He’d be better off climbing out the window in the back of his room. Though the window was only a three foot by three foot window, placed four feet off the ground, it was still his safest choice for it would put him directly outside the four walls of the fort, offering him a bit more time to find a place to hide.

Gray grabbed the bottom of the windowpane and yanked it up enough that he was certain he could climb through without getting stuck.

Putting the toe of his right boot in the crevice of two logs and grabbing either side of the windowsill, he hoisted his other leg up, hooking it over the window ledge. Keeping his hold on the window casing, he brought his other leg up, then released his grip on the sides and jumped down.

Not bothering to dust off his blue trousers, he immediately began to walk casually away from the fort.

On the run today, soldier?” a feminine voice asked.

Gray froze instantly. Could today get any worse? His mind warred between his desires and his purpose. He needed to get away from the vicinity of General Davis as soon as possible, but what of this young woman?

Slowly, he turned around to face her and his breath caught. Her beautiful auburn hair was slightly askew, slipping from its pins and framing her gentle, young-looking face. Though she had a hint of a smile playing on her lips, it didn’t meet her eyes. He dropped his gaze lower to her crushed and wrinkled gown that fit snug against all of her feminine curves and swallowed. Its fabric was the most vibrant shade of yellow he’d seen in a long time, giving away how new to the profession she still was. His heart slammed in his chest.

Taking a deep breath he walked a few steps in her direction. “Just looking for you.”

She lifted her eyebrows in response. He grinned. Perhaps she was more experienced than he thought. No. Her skin looked too smooth and her dress too new. Unless she’d previously had a protector, she’d have never been able to afford such a fine garment.

And now that you’ve found me?” she asked, bringing him from his thoughts.

Would you like to go on a walk?”

Something, fear perhaps, flickered across her face. “No, thank you.”

All right,” he said slowly. Her response had confirmed his earlier suspicion. She wasn’t yet accustomed to her profession. “How about if we talk? Right here?”

She bit her lip and she cast a fleeting glance around them, hesitation stamped all over her face and shining in her green eyes.

Nothing is going to happen to you,” he said softly. “We’re here in the open.”

She didn’t look convinced; in fact, she looked more startled by his words than she had before.

He reached to steady her, hoping she’d see in his eyes that she could trust him.

She swallowed audibly when his hands touched her hips.

It’s all right,” he crooned. His eyes settled on her plump lips and his pulse started to race, spurring him to close the gap between them. What was he doing? He couldn’t kiss her. He’d never once kissed a woman of her station and yet, her trusting eyes and timid beauty called to him.

She licked her lips and all of Gray’s restraint crumbled.

Abandoning everything he’d ever fought to protect, he brought his lips to hers.

Soft and supple, her lips were like heaven. Warm and sweet, her mouth tasted sweeter than any pastry he’d ever had melt in his mouth. This discovery was something he certainly wouldn’t have expected from a woman such as her.

A sigh escaped her lips, and he deepened their kiss.

Cupping her face with his hands, he idly rubbed her cheeks with the sides of his thumbs—something he’d once witnessed his friend Wes do while kissing his wife. Gray had scoffed at the very idea of such a display. But now… Now he wanted nothing more than to touch every inch of her soft face and hold that sweet mouth to his for as long as he could.

Which, heedless to who saw them, was exactly what he planned to do.

Or he would have, had the unmistakeable sound of General Davis clearing his throat with a gargle followed by an ahem not rent the air.

He pulled back and muttered a curse, not sure if he was cursing because he was about to face his nemesis or at the realization that kissing her had put him in such an uncomfortable state of arousal—something he’d vowed to never let happen with a woman such as this. A wave of shame came over him and he turned his head to cast a cold stare over his shoulder toward the man he’d once told if he ever saw him again he’d kill him with his bare hands.

General Davis, a retired general who was here at this abandoned fort for who-knew-what reason, penetrated Gray with his stare the same way he always had when Gray had been caught doing something wrong.

Gray held his gaze and instinctively moved to draw the woman closer to him, doing his best to shield her from General Davis’ view. He hadn’t meant to draw attention to her or embarrass her. He moved his hand to hold her just above her elbow, noting how tense her arm felt under his hand. He gave her a tight squeeze. Not enough to hurt her, but enough to assure her that he wasn’t going to let anyone, especially General Davis, harm her.

What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?” General Davis demanded from where he stood at attention, not five feet away.

Gray bristled at being called a boy and a belligerent answer formed on the tip of his tongue. One that would no doubt send the general into a temper. The temptation was too much, but when he opened his mouth, the words, “Kissing my intended, sir,” rolled off his tongue.

Your intended?” the man challenged, his stony face giving nothing away.

Gray nodded. That’s all he could do, so shocked by the words that had come out of his own mouth. It wasn’t until General Davis questioned him about it that he’d actually believed he’d said it aloud and hadn’t imagined it. “Yes, sir, my intended.”

I see,” he said slowly. “Don’t you think it’s best to ask her father’s permission first?”

Had she one, I’d have asked,” Gray said flippantly. What was it about this man that brought out the worst in Gray? Never mind. He knew the answer to that, and thinking of it only steeled his resolve.

General Davis moved his left leg out to put his stance shoulder-width apart and brought his hands behind his back, taking the ‘at ease’ position. “All right, ask.”

The Officer and the Traveler–coming THIS WEEK!