Book Genre: Audiobook

Three Lessons in Seduction

Posted November 11, 2018 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: Three Lessons in Seduction
Series: Shadows and Silk #1
Genre: ,
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Lesson One: Don’t forget to tell your wife you’re a spy...

An absentee husband is one thing, but a dead husband is too much for Lady Mariana Asquith to ignore. When she travels to Paris to search for the body of the wastrel who broke her heart, she finds him—alive at the Opera and still far too attractive for her comfort. But not everything is what it seems with her husband…

Lesson Two: Don’t let your husband seduce you...

Nick has sacrificed everything to protect King and Country—including his marriage. But after ten years of staying away from the woman he loves, he can’t quite make himself drive Mariana away. He longs to be done with the lies and spies—but there’s one last job, with a seductive partner at his side….

Lesson Three: Whatever you do, don’t fall in love—again.

As they work together to save the French government from powerful adversaries, Nick must teach his wife how to be a spy, starting with how to seduce a dangerous stranger. Mariana already has some experience with dangerous men thanks to Nick, and she has her own lessons to teach him—like how passion, love, and trust just might save the day.

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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Married: Persons chained or handcuffed together, in order to be conveyed to gaol, or on board the lighters for transportation, are in the cant language said to be married together.
- A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose

Paris 12 September 1824

Nick spotted her across the cavernous expanse of La Grande Salle, and the breath froze in his chest. There would be trouble.

From his shadowed position inside the opera box opposite hers, he could easily pretend she was just another sophisticated Parisienne. After all, he couldn’t see her face as she made conversation to her right.

Except he didn’t need to see her face. Her profile, limned in the soft glow of gas lamps, was enough for the heavy thrum of recognition to flood him with both a dread and a thrill that had excited him from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her more than a decade ago.

Why was she in Paris?

As if in response to his unspoken question, she canted her head to the side and froze as if she sensed something unusual, or was it someone unusual? He stepped deeper into shadow. Her gaze shifted sideways and unerringly found the exact spot he’d occupied no more than a trio of seconds ago.

He resisted the urge to run frustrated hands through newly shorn hair. She might have caught a flash of him. He couldn’t be sure.

Blast. Why was she here?

She was here for him. The thought sank in, and horror unfolded within him. Deep down, he’d known this day would come—the day she would enter his shadowy world.

For one thing, he was missing, or was he dead? Or maybe he was on a trip to Italy. No one could say with certainty. And he preferred it that way until he discovered who had sent two men to attack him in his hotel suite a fortnight ago.

The woman was more than trouble. She was a threat to half-formed plans that were barely treading water as it was. Ignoring her presence in Paris wasn’t an option. If she was here for him—and she was without a doubt—she would find him. She was that sort of woman. She didn’t fade into the background when it was convenient for others that she do so. In fact, she only responded by foregrounding herself further.

He must find a way to seize control of the situation before it spiraled away from him, as situations tended to do around her. If she’d caught a glimpse of him, perhaps he could use to his advantage the curiosity such a sighting would stir within her.

She must be handled, and this ran him square into the second reason there would be trouble: she was his wife. If one person in Paris could best him, it was Mariana.

♦♦♦

“Ma chérie,” Mariana heard this as if from a great distance. “To sit in La Grande Salle is a privilege and a joy. Settle and experience it. You have les fourmis.”“Les fourmis?” Mariana’s French didn’t extend beyond the schoolroom basics of bonjours and adieus.

“Zee ants. You sit like ants are crawling against your skin,” explained Helene de Vivonne, her mother’s dearest childhood friend. “I lived in London during la Terreur. Have you forgotten? Everything is rush-rush. Tick one item off your list, so you can complete the next. Posthaste, you English say. This is not the French way.” The older woman pulled Mariana close. “Savor the night, ma chérie. London has nothing on Paris.”

Possessed with the attention span of a butterfly, Helene released her hold on Mariana and turned to her other neighbor, leaving Mariana alone to take in the crowded room.

From the ornate ceiling frescoes illuminated by a magnificent cut-glass, ormolu chandelier, and the parquet floor cushioned by dense Persian carpets, to Society’s glittering monsieurs, madames, and mademoiselles in between, La Grande Salle was nothing short of sumptuous, the sparkling epicenter of Parisian Society. Inside this spectacularly gilded room, one could forget Paris had been in shambles not so long ago. This room could tempt one into pretending that the Revolution had never happened, and that it was only a wicked night terror revealed to be without substance in the warm glow of morning sunshine.

It was within this world that her husband had spent the better part of the last decade. Oh, Nick . . .

She slipped the note from her reticule and fingered its newly worn edges. She’d looked at it so often these last three days, she could quote its contents from memory:

9 September 1824 To the most esteemed Lady Nicholas Asquith: It is with great and solemn regret that we inform you that your husband, Lord Nicholas Asquith, younger son of the Marquess of Clare, is missing, presumed dead in the service of his King and Country. He was last seen in Paris on 30 August. Please accept our most profound and sincere condolences to you and your family.

Unable to comprehend the subtleties contained within the note at once, Mariana had sprung into a course of action regarding its more concrete elements. Namely, she would hasten to Paris and find her estranged husband—either dead or alive.

First, she’d seen to the care of the twins. Her sister, Olivia, took Lavinia with few questions asked, and Geoffrey would remain at school in Westminster.

She couldn’t get Geoffrey’s solemn, intelligent, ten-year-old eyes out of her mind. He’d known that something was wrong. “Tell me again why you’re leaving in such a hurry?” he asked as if she hadn’t already explained herself twice.

“I’m visiting your father in Paris. It will be a holiday.”

“You never visit Father in Paris.” His head had cocked to the side. “Or take holidays, for that matter.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” she’d said, bright and shrill.

Geoffrey’s eyes had only narrowed.

Even so, he, like Lavinia, had agreed to post an express letter to Helene’s Paris address every single day. With the possibility their world had been irrevocably turned upside-down looming over their heads, Mariana needed to know her children were safe while she searched for their father—their missing, presumed dead father.

Next, she’d rushed from London to Margate. There she’d used a combination of desperation and gold to convince a reluctant Captain Nylander to transport her across the Channel in his East Indiaman. He was set to sail to East Asia within hours, and a quick side trip to Calais would be nothing to him. From Calais, she’d hired a coach, paid the driver twice his usual fee, and rode on to Paris.

If Nick proved to be alive, she would leave him where she found him and return home.

For a decade now, they’d been living the perfect facsimile of a Society marriage where they saw each other at arranged times of year—Christmas, Easter, birthdays—for the benefit of Geoffrey and Lavinia. Not ten words passed between them a year, and the children likely never noticed. It was the sort of marriage not uncommon to their social set, and it was not at all the sort of marriage she’d envisioned when she’d fallen head over heels in love with him.

She gave her head a tiny, clearing shake. That dream had been crushed years ago, a lifetime really. A better use of her time would be to focus on the present. If Nick proved to be dead, she would transport his body to London. At the very least, she owed the twins their father’s decent burial at home.

Familiar panic rose, and the ground beneath her feet threatened to crater and give way. She wasn’t certain what lay below, but she suspected it was a bottomless abyss from which she would never claw her way out. Even though she saw him no more than every few months, a world without Nick in it was too much for her brain to comprehend.

It simply couldn’t be, and it simply was not. A force, intangible and mysterious, connected her to Nick. She would sense his absence if he’d left this world for the next. Except . . .

What if she couldn’t? And he was dead? The doubt crept in and threatened to split wide into the unfathomable chasm of her nightmares, but she refused to consider that outcome.

Hands clenched into fists at her sides, a steadying wave of determination steeled her. It simply couldn’t be. It simply wasn’t. She would find him and prove it—for the children, and, yes, for herself. She could admit that much.

The playful rap of a silk fan across her knuckles snapped her back into the present. Helene leaned in. “I take it the tall drink of Viking water is no longer in Paris?”

Mariana quashed a sigh and replied, “He left soon after escorting me to Nick’s hotel.”

Helene shrugged a Gallic shoulder. “His loss,” she said, returning her attention to her other neighbor.

Escorted all the way to Paris by the imposing Nylander—it was true the man resembled nothing other than a Viking in both bearing and temperament—Mariana’s first order of business on her arrival yesterday had been to place herself on Helene’s doorstep. Within the hour, Mariana and Nylander had followed Helene’s directions to Nick’s hotel in the Place Vendôme.

“I believe this is where we part ways,” Mariana had said to Nylander, her tone purposeful and businesslike. “I’m not certain you needed to escort me all the way here.”

She’d darted a covert glance at the captain. He was the sort of man who could give an unhappily, even happily, married woman ideas. Even though she was here for Nick, Mariana saw how easily she could pivot and pursue a different path. She could invite this gorgeous man into her suite of rooms. She didn’t owe Nick fidelity, especially after what he’d done.

“Shall I escort you inside?” Nylander asked in a low rumble.

For a long moment, she met eyes the blue of a midsummer sky. “I think not.”

“I shall be in Calais for a fortnight to have a few repairs done to the Fortuyn. Contact me at Le Blanc Navire if you need further assistance.” Without another word, he pivoted and strode down the crowded sidewalk as casual passersby parted for him like the Red Sea.

Mariana found herself the lone occupant of Nick’s set of rooms, which once picked apart inch by inch, yielded no clues as to his whereabouts or fate, an outcome at once wildly frustrating and oddly comforting. She didn’t know he was alive, but she didn’t know he was dead either. The man was nowhere.

Mariana worried the note between her fingers. Over the last few days, its texture had become as soft and supple as cloth. Yet, she kept it close for a reason: this note defied all logic. It was impossible to square with the dissolute life Nick led in Paris. Although the note was unsigned, it had originated from the Foreign Office.

How in the course of largely ceremonial consular duties—Nick’s words—did one become missing and presumed dead in the eyes of Whitehall? She intended to ask Nick if she found him . . . No, when she found him.

“Mariana?” came Helene’s voice.

As Mariana turned to reply, the fine hairs on her arms stood on end, and she hesitated. Her eyes darted left, toward the source of the feeling, but she found no one she recognized.

Heart pounding, she whispered, “Helene, may I use your opera glass?”

Helene raised a single eyebrow and handed the object over.

Mariana held the glass to her eyes and . . . saw nothing useful. Her overwrought mind was playing tricks on her. A phantom husband was the stuff of novels full of whimsy and scandal, not the stuff of real life.

The glow of the theater’s lights dimmed, and the roar of the assembled dulled to a low rumble. The ballet was set to begin. All eyes shifted their focus away from the drama of each other and toward the impending drama to be enacted on the stage.

All, except Mariana. She couldn’t succumb to the sugar-coated fantasy of the ballet. In an effort to relax, she exhaled every last bit of breath in her lungs and inhaled a slow, steady stream of air. But it was to no avail. Her heart a relentless tattoo in her chest, the walls of the theater threatened to close in on her.

She shot to her feet. “Helene, I need some fresh air.”

Without a care for the other woman’s response, Mariana darted out of the dark box and into a bright, empty corridor. Finally, blessedly alone, the walls expanded, and a self-conscious smile pulled at her lips. She was in danger of becoming the sort of excitable woman who tested her patience within thirty seconds of conversation. It was no state in which to conduct one’s life. A restorative visit to a museum would do her a bit of good. Perhaps the Museum of Natural History . . .

An inconspicuous door flew open, and a hand shot out, closing around her upper arm with the strength of a steel vise. A scream caught in her throat as she was dragged into a pitch-black room, the door snapping shut behind her. Her heart hammered in her chest as if it was trying to break free of her body, and her mind raced in time with its frenetic rhythm.

Before another scream could gather in her chest, a leather-gloved hand clamped over her mouth, and an arm reached across her torso, trapping her arms to her sides and pulling her tight against a solid, muscular chest. She struggled, twisted, wiggled, and stomped—everything she could think of to free herself. But nothing succeeded, and her breath continued coming hard and fast through her nose.

It wasn’t until her body stilled in frustrated exhaustion that she inhaled and smelled. Located in the scent surrounding her were notes she recognized—notes specific to one man. It was the scent of . . .

“Can I trust you not to scream?”

It was the voice of a dead man.


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Lady Amelia Takes a Lover

Posted May 22, 2022 by Danielle in / 0 Comments

Title: Lady Amelia Takes a Lover
Series: Audiobook #1, Windermeres in Love #1
Genre: ,
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A proper English lady…

A little time in beautiful Italy is just what Lady Amelia Windermere and her eccentric family need while their latest scandal dies down. Amelia is hard at work on their triumphant return to London society when she meets His Grace Tristan Carteret, Duke of Ripon, a sculptor who is too wild for any proper lady.

Meets a dissolute Duke…

Tristan isn’t eager to let go of la dolce vita that he’s enjoyed in Florence—until he meets Amelia. She may appear to be one more uptight debutant, but he soon realizes that there’s a talented artist and a passionate woman just aching to emerge.  If only she can forget what society says and concentrate on what she feels when she’s with him.

And that’s how Lady Amelia Takes a Lover…

Exploring their art leads to Amelia and Tristan exploring much more than stone or canvas. But Amelia knows that indulging her desire for the dissolute Duke comes with a price—more scandal. Tristan refuses to give up on the real Amelia just because of society’s rules, but can he sway her to make him her future?

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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Florence, Italy
March 1820

“All we need to do is behave,” said Lady Amelia Windermere for the thousandth time to her sister Delilah and cousin Juliet.

Speaking of misbehaving… Amelia turned her head this way and that and still couldn’t understand precisely why the pomegranate set so prettily beneath a window refused to flow from her brush and settle onto paper like a good little watercolor.

“It’s only for a little while longer,” she added.

It was too much to ask that the Windermere brood behave for an indefinite amount of time. Still, she could sense eyes rolling toward the high, airy ceiling. It may have been spring in Italy, but their rented three-story palazzo held the perfect temperature, allowing gentle breezes to drift through at will. While not much was superior to her homeland England, she might have to consider that the Italian weather was. Most of England would’ve been soggy and cold on a late-March day like today.

“Shall we behave like Archie is behaving with his opera singer in Naples?” asked Delilah, reclining lazily across a plush velvet settee the rich hue of sunburnt earth, mischief in each syllable. Amelia didn’t need to look at her sister to see it in her eyes, too.

“What happens in Naples…” Amelia wasn’t quite sure where she was heading with that sentence. It was the red, she decided. The pomegranate red wasn’t quite pink enough. She added a dollop of water to the paint mix.

“Stays in Naples?” added Juliet, ever a wit with word play and seated near the open doors that led onto the terrace. She’d positioned herself so as to better catch the afternoon light for the book she was reading.

Juliet had come to live with them after her parents had perished in a tragic carriage accident when she was but aged two years. Though a second cousin once removed, she was as a sibling and was treated as such.

“I cannot behave, Amelia,” proclaimed Delilah. “You might as well toss me into the Arno now.”

“Delilah,” began Amelia, sensing one of her sister’s dramatic moods coming on.

“What’s the point of being alive if you can’t truly be alive?”

“Delilah—”

“One’s soul shrivels into nothingness.”

While Juliet might have a way with creating words, Delilah had a way with speaking them. One felt perched in the palm of her hand until she’d finished. It had been so since the moment she’d strung a two-word sentence together in her baby cradle.

Still, as the elder sister by five years, Amelia knew when to put her foot down. “Delilah, I forbid you from throwing yourself into the Arno.”

Her sister stared moodily out the window overlooking said river. Delilah—like all Windermeres—didn’t have the natural mien for brooding, with her crystalline blue eyes and blond curls that streaked platinum in the summer sun. “My soul might demand such a cleanse.” Byronic the Windermeres weren’t, but Delilah was giving it her best impression.

Ever the pragmatic one, Amelia felt it her obligation to point out one important fact—the most important fact. “We shall never be received into polite society again.”

“It would be the leap too far,” said Juliet, provoking a giggle from Delilah and a reluctant smile from Amelia.

“But we are received in polite society,” continued Juliet. Where the Windermere siblings were all curly blond hair and blue eyes, their cousin Juliet had straight black hair and clear green eyes so direct they could see into one’s soul, or so it was suspected by all who met her. She had, however, inherited the famous Windermere height. They were tall to a one.

“Oh, dearest Juliet, have you learned nothing from this past year?” asked Delilah, wide-eyed and innocent. “You are speaking of polite Italian society, and Amelia isn’t. She’s speaking of the only society that matters to the English.” She allowed a laden beat of time to lope past. “Polite English society.”

“Well, I think the Italians are very nice.” Juliet shrugged one shoulder and returned her attention to the book on her lap. She always had a book on her person. She even had a special necklace with a notepad attached. Juliet was serious about her words.

“Delilah,” said Amelia, her brush only now making headway with this baffling pomegranate. It was the blasted texture of the thing that was trickiest to convey with a watercolor brush. “You aren’t being fair to the English, or the Italians, or me. I would like to return to London and be invited to all the balls and soirées. Is that so wrong?” She glanced up. “Has the post arrived yet?”

Delilah and Juliet gave each a sly look that said they knew exactly why Amelia had asked for the third time today. “I don’t believe so,” said Juliet.

The thing was Amelia had a plan to rehabilitate the Windermere reputation and slip back into the good graces of society before their parents, the Earl and Countess of Cumberland, returned from their two-year archeological journey to Samarkland. Mama and Papa need never know that their children had fled England with scandal nipping at their heels, rather than for a simple holiday.

By Amelia’s calculations, that left them another year; but if all went to her plan, she and her siblings would be enjoying the highest society of the haute ton within three months. The plan was simple: secure an invitation to the Marchioness of Sutton’s ball that marked the end of the season in early June. A cousin had assured Amelia the invitation would be arriving by post any day now. But Amelia wouldn’t believe it until she held it in her hands.

And now Delilah was threatening to throw herself into the Arno.

Being the only sensible Windermere wasn’t the easiest lot.

“But here’s the thing, dear sister,” said Delilah. “You want to be a lady.”

“I am a lady.” Amelia pointed her paintbrush at Delilah. “And so are you.” Her brush shifted toward Juliet. “And you, too.”

“I didn’t choose to be a lady,” said Delilah. Oh, how she loved to say that. “In fact, it’s a great hindrance to what and who I want to be.”

Amelia released a long-held, long-suffering sigh. “What you want to be, Delilah, is what landed you and all of us out here on the fringes of polite society in the first place.”

Delilah directed her unflinching gaze at Amelia. “All you need is paintbrush and paper to create your art.”

Here came Delilah’s grievance, which Amelia had heard a good seventy-three times, if once. While she had sympathy for it, she’d long lost patience with it.

“All Archie needs,” said Delilah, “is a pianoforte. And, Juliet, all you need—”

Juliet held up a staying hand. As ever, she preferred to stay clear of Windermere sibling arguments. “I have no artistic talent to speak of.”

“—is paper, pencil, and a chair placed at the periphery of a room for your art,” finished Delilah.

Juliet’s smooth brow lifted. “And what art is that?”

“Listening.”

Juliet scoffed. “Listening isn’t an art.”

Delilah snorted. “The way you do it is, and don’t think I haven’t noticed.” She stopped long enough to draw breath. “And I need a stage and an audience.”

Amelia let her brush fall to the table. Now it was her turn to voice her grievance for the seventy-third time. “But did you need as public a one as Eton College?”

Delilah shrugged her shoulder.

Amelia wasn’t finished, for her grievance was never satisfied until it had a full airing. “And did you need to pretend to be a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy to do it?”

Delilah looked at Amelia as if she’d suddenly become the most stupid woman in all the world. “That is the role of Viola in Twelfth Night.”

Amelia’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling and remained there until she’d achieved a measure of calm. “But it’s the bit where you pretended to be a boy to get the part in the first place that society has taken issue with.”

How many times had Amelia pointed out the distinction this last year?

“Eton is an all-boys school,” returned Delilah. “How else would I have been able to secure the role?”

And how many times had Delilah refused to acknowledge the point?

“And to think Archie helped you,” said Amelia. She still couldn’t believe it.

“The bet was Archie’s idea in the first place.”

“You didn’t have to accept.”

“Sometimes, it’s like you don’t know me at all,” said Delilah, exasperated. “Besides, Archie’s been wanting to get one over on Eton since he left however many years ago.”

“But you, Delilah, are a lady of two and twenty years.” How many times had Ameila pointed this out? Oh, yes, seventy-three. “How did you ever expect to succeed?”

Delilah snorted. “The haircut helped.” She ran her fingers through short blond curls.

“We shan’t discuss your hair,” said Amelia. She still hadn’t recovered from The Haircut. Delilah had once possessed the most beautiful head of hair ever beheld, rivaled only by Amelia’s own long blond curls. Only Botticelli’s Venus standing on her half-shell held a candle to a Windermere head of hair.

Juliet lifted her head. “I rather like Delilah’s haircut.”

Oh, dear cousin Juliet… So honest… So annoying.

“Lady Caroline Lamb would approve.” Delilah knew precisely how to fray Amelia’s last nerve.

I think it makes you look like a twelfth century monk,” said Amelia. “Without the bald patch, of course.”

Delilah and Juliet shared a conspiratorial snicker.

“Further,” Amelia couldn’t help continuing, even though she really, truly shouldn’t. “Lady Caroline Lamb’s approval is the very last thing this family needs.”

But Delilah wasn’t finished torturing her sister. “I could procure a straightedge and give that bald spot a running start.”

“Don’t you dare.” Amelia had to say it. She never quite knew how far Delilah would go.

Delilah’s mouth curled into the mischievous smile that ever did get her out of trouble with her older sister. “When did Archie write that he would arrive?”

“Tomorrow.” Amelia picked up her brush and resumed her study of the pomegranate. It looked…angry. Perhaps she was taking out her frustration with her family on the poor, blameless fruit.

“Which means he could arrive any time between now and next week,” Juliet pointed out.

True. The Windermeres ever had a loose relationship with timekeeping.

“Oh, by the by, Amelia,” said Delilah. “I’ve decided I shall attend tomorrow night’s soirée in honor of the Duke of Ripon.”

“Didn’t you say soirées celebrating decrepit, old dukes weren’t worth your time?”

“Don’t forget lecherous,” added Juliet. “She said that, too.”

“I said likely weren’t worth my time,” said Delilah, indifferently flicking a piece of lint off her skirt. “And as none of us have ever clapped eyes on the man, as reclusive as he is, well, I’m curious, and in need of society and prosecco.”

Something akin to dread filled Amelia. If Archie did, in fact, arrive tomorrow, the possibility existed that the Windermeres could be attending a society function all together—which hadn’t happened since they’d left England. Which meant, of course, she would be playing nursemaid all night, because, quite simply, her siblings couldn’t be trusted not to be utterly and completely themselves—charming, but improper and slightly scandalous, in either word or deed or, most like, both.

A feeling jogged on the edge of memory as if…as if she was forgetting something important, like an…

Appointment.

All-too-familiar panic seized her. “What is the time?” Time just never seemed to pass in the linear fashion everyone said it did.

Delilah pulled a pocket watch from the discreet hip pocket she had sewn into all her dresses. She’d explained it was something about being an actress and timing and honestly Amelia hadn’t been able to understand the reasoning. She couldn’t bring herself to give a fig about time. Signore Rossi, her Italian art instructor, did, however.

“Five minutes shy of one of the clock.”

“Blast!”

In a frantic rush that brought mean, little smiles to Delilah and Juliet’s faces—they’d heard that exact exclamation regarding this very topic more times than any of them could count—Amelia gathered her brushes and palette and shoved them into her valise, which she grabbed on the run. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Muted laughter followed Amelia as she dashed from the palazzo and onto the street, her feet a rapid tattoo against cobblestones. The scents and sounds of Florence crashed into her in a frenzied rush, as they always did as she crossed one square, then another, flew down a labyrinthine maze of alleys, another square, then it was a quick turn onto a narrow street, an even quicker turn into a quiet alley. Twenty steps later, she’d arrived, panting, at the turquoise-painted gate of Signore Rossi.

Taking no time to compose herself or wipe the sweat off her flushed brow, Amelia planted both hands on the gate that led into an exterior courtyard and began to push when it suddenly gave way and an ox plowed into her, knocking her off balance and flat onto her bottom, her skirts forming a white muslin puff around her—all in the space of two seconds.

She held a hand to her forehead and glared up at the ox.

Well, not an ox, precisely. But an ox of a man, to be sure. She couldn’t see his face as the sun was at his back, creating a halo of light around his massive hulking form.

“Please don’t apologize,” she said acidly, dusting her hands off on her skirts, before checking that nothing had spilled from her valise.

The man snorted. Rather like an ox. “That was far from my intention. Perhaps it has occurred to you that you’re entirely at fault for your current condition.”

“Why…why…” she sputtered through righteous, disbelieving shock. Never in her life had she been spoken to thusly.

And she most definitely didn’t like it.

He held out a hand, presumably to help her to her feet. She would rather grab hold of a writhing serpent.

Gathering the few remaining shreds of her dignity available to her, she managed to scramble to her feet with her modesty in place—thank you very much—even if her bottom had begun to throb. It wasn’t until she was squarely facing the ox of a man—well, not facing precisely as he stood a good six inches taller than her and she was no diminutive woman—that a shocking fact hit her. “You’re an Englishman.”

And a noble one at that, given the clipped syllables of his speech, even if his appearance lent a different impression given that he was wearing the clothes of a laborer and his brown hair hung unfashionably long and loose about his face.

What sort of English nobleman was this ox anyway?

He grunted—like a grouchy Highland coo she’d once encountered in Scotland—and that was leave taken as he brushed past. A faint blend of scents remained—clove, sandalwood, and… Was that sweat?

Tetchy remnants of the encounter quaking through her, Amelia entered Signore Rossi’s exterior courtyard and halted, dipping a hand into the fountain depicting frolicking water sprites and bringing it to her face. She needed a quick cool-down before greeting Signore. What just happened?

Servants accustomed to her twice-a-week arrival simply nodded as she slipped through Signore’s typically Italian palazzo and into the studio, with its tremendous north-facing windows that allowed light to pour in at all hours of the day. She found her customary easel and began readying her pencils and brushes. A bowl of fruit had been arranged for her session today. Perhaps not the most exciting subject, but a useful one in her education, of course.

Still, how many bowls of fruit had she painted in her life?

The lot of the gentlelady painter.

Signore Rossi and his little white dog Dolce entered the studio. “Ah, Signorina Amelia, you decided to join us today.” He ever commented on her lateness—as was his rightful prerogative—but did so with a smile on his face.

Dolce curled up on his purple velvet pillow across from her, allowing sunlight to soak into his scruffy white fur, his little face resting on a paw, gaze lazily fixed on outdoor happenings in the cypress trees. Amelia found herself doing a sketch. Just a few lines to expand upon later.

Signore glanced over her shoulder. “Ah, would you like to paint Dolce today?”

Si,” she said, already delighting in the prospect. She rarely painted live forms with Signore.

She attempted to quiet her mind and enter the creative space where her brush would find inspiration for this little moppet of a dog. But she was still fizzing with her collision with the ox. Before she knew it, words were spilling from her mouth. “I just had the most curious encounter at the entrance to your studio.”

Signore Rossi didn’t bother looking up. “Hmm.”

“With the most incredibly rude man.”

A name, she wanted a name.

All Signore gave her was another, “Hmm.”

She wasn’t to be put off so easily. The ox was a menace and an Englishman. She couldn’t let it pass. “Is he your student?”

She had to know.

Even as the question passed her lips, however, an image entered her mind. Of his hands, unrepentantly massive and masculine, like the rest of him. She couldn’t imagine those hands holding anything as delicate as a paintbrush. Surely, it would snap in two.

Signore Rossi set his charcoal down and gave her an indulgent smile. “Signorina Amelia, would you appreciate me passing your information along to all manner of those who might ask about you?”

There was but one answer, and it put her in her place. “No.”

Signore nodded, and that was her question sorted. She wasn’t to know. She was to forget the ox of an English nobleman whose face she hadn’t clearly seen.

Dolce shot to his four feet and gave a sudden round of barking at the squirrel who had the temerity to race up the cypress nearest the window. The little dog was on high defensive alert.

A chirrup of giggles escaped Amelia, and her brush sparked with inspiration. She would call the painting, Our Greatest Defender.

As her brush followed the creative muse where it led, oxes of men were forgotten.

For now.


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