Book Genre: Historical

To Win A Wicked Lord

Posted January 23, 2020 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: To Win A Wicked Lord
Series: Shadows and Silk #4
Genre:
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Lord Percival Bretagne is used to playing games. He survived being a spy for a decade using his wits alone. But that was just life and death, now he’s playing for the most important prize of all—love.

He’ll Stop at Nothing……

Ten years after his family gave him up for dead, British spy Lord Percival Bretagne is back home, but his mission is far from over. Playing the aristocrat in London gambling dens and at country house parties is just a cover for Percy's real quest. He's hunting the man who stole everything from him—his family, his marriage, even his identity. And this time nothing, and no one, will stand in his way.

She’ll Risk it All…...

But one night with Isabel Galante changes everything. She’s willing to gamble a woman’s most intimate prize in order to save her imprisoned father, but she didn’t expect a devilishly handsome opponent with a dangerously attractive wicked streak. Isabel would do anything for her family, including betraying Percy, but she has no idea that she’s stumbled into the middle of a decade-long quest for revenge.

Who Will Win in the Game Called Love?

Percy has been betrayed before, and now the man who destroyed his life is using Isabel to strike again. With the fate of the government and his new life in the balance, he’ll have to keep Isabel seductively, scandalously close. They begin a passionate game of truth and lies, deception and dalliance, uncovering the heart of who they really are and realizing that winning might mean losing what matters the most—each other.

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

London
20 June 1826

Lord Percival Bretagne stepped into a room alive with the vibrancy of a young night and grasped in an instant that he would be known.

This gaming hell was exclusive, a playground for the ultra-wealthy. Here, the son of a duke—even a younger one, like himself—would be hard pressed to remain anonymous. Society circles ran small and tight in London. He should have stuck to the dicier hells. But in those places the stakes were too low, and he needed to strike his enemy where it hurt: deep in his banking account.

From finely woven Persian carpets to walls bedecked with gold-shot silk brocade up to the high ceiling lit with crystal candelabra, bright opulence winked optimistic light and beckoned Percy to follow its uncertain promise. Impassive male servants circulated through the crowd, champagne and spirits balanced on trays polished to high shine. Strumpets, clad in diaphanous fabrics that left naught to the imagination, tripped through the room on light feet, flirtatious laughter trailing in their wake, laughter that didn’t quite reach their eyes.

Percy’s gaze narrowed on Number 9’s patrons, seated at various gaming tables that offered any man with the right amount of wealth or family connections the opportunity to test his luck. To a one, they wore the specific look of the well-heeled and moneyed, an air of Eton and Harrow hanging about them, half an eye on the gaming, the other half on the female flesh.

Percy descended three quick steps and entered the fray. A few faintly curious eyes glanced up, only to return to their game the next moment.

“Champagne, milord?” inquired a plaintive cockney whine at his side. He was about to decline the offer when he found a pair of familiar eyes the hue of a turquoise stone staring up at him. “Follow me,” she said, low, her voice again her own. She led him to an alcove hidden behind a large curtain that she must have already scouted. Hortense was ever prepared.

“Where did you procure that?” Percy indicated her costume of gossamer silk that left little to the imagination. He didn’t like her wearing such revealing clothing.

“From the doorman. He knew Nick.”

Hortense didn’t need to elaborate further. During their years in France and the Continent, Lord Nicholas Asquith, their handler and friend, had been expert at securing favors here and there, names and places passed along on the breeze, this or that useful bit of intelligence in exchange for a scrap of coin or safe passage across the Channel. This French doorman must have been quite useful to Nick for him to be in London.

Serious blue eyes snapped at Percy. Hortense had the sort of gaze that could see past skin and muscle, down to the marrow of bone. “Are you certain about tonight, Bretagne? This Savior of St.

Giles business has taken on a life of its own.”

Percy snorted. “The Savior of St. Giles? What foolery. The gossip rags have outdone themselves with that one.”

“You can’t go around bankrupting gaming hells and not expect anyone to notice.”

“There is only one man whose notice I care to attract.”

“Well, you’ve single-handedly shut down two of his hells, so you can feel confident on that score. But the papers have noticed, too. You’re becoming a bloody folk hero.”

Percy waved off Hortense’s concerns. “Is that all?”

She persisted. “You’re open to exposure. It can be used against you.”

Her jaw set in determination. Percy had come to know that look from years of working by her side on the Continent, cracking codes and gathering information for Crown and Country. She was like a terrier with a bone once she got something between her teeth, and she wasn’t letting this go, which, of course, was why he’d involved her in the first place. In truth, she was the most perfect agent he’d ever known.

A few months ago, before he’d caught wind of his enemy’s illicit activities, Percy might have paid her worries more attention. But, tonight, he would allow her qualms no air to breathe, not when he had the scents of peril and possibility in his nose. Since stepping foot on English soil, he’d been most alive on these nights when he actively worked toward the destruction of Lord Bertrand Montfort.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, Percy had lost the talent for the aristocratic London life he’d once been so exceptionally good at living. A life he’d shed a dozen years ago on a scarred Spanish mountain pass that had been blown to bits by Napoleon’s army.

It was Montfort who had, at last, found Percy, his memory ripped to shreds.

And Montfort who had ensured it stayed that way, as that version of Percy had perfectly suited Montfort’s purposes.

With Percy returned to England, Montfort’s account had come due.

“We shall have everything we need on Montfort tonight, if all goes to plan,” Percy said. “Then you can return to spying on rich men’s cheating wives.”

“Don’t forget rich ladies’ cheating younger lovers.” Hortense shrugged one shoulder. “It pays well.

Still, it has felt good these last few months, getting back into the thick of an operation.”

Percy loosened the constrictive silk cravat at his neck before adjusting one, then the other, of the cuff studs at his wrists. It had been some time since he’d dressed in evening blacks. “Do I look the part?”

“Of debauched, entitled lord determined to fritter his life away on a single roll of the dice?” Hortense’s mouth twitched. “Aye, I’d say you’re hitting that nail on the head.”

Percy chucked her beneath the chin. “Cheeky.”

The seriousness returned to Hortense’s eyes. “I’ll be waiting in a hackney cab behind the building until dawn.”

Percy lifted an eyebrow. “I doubt—”

“I’ll be there.” Hortense deposited the serving tray onto the nearest table with a loud clank and disappeared into the crowd, this role complete.

Hortense’s concerns vanished with her as Percy stepped from the alcove and considered the room. He was champing at the bit to dismantle this place by using its own vices against it.

“Why if it isn’t Lord Percival Bretagne,” came a public school drawl.

Percy stopped dead in his tracks and met the gaze of one booze-soaked Lord James Asquith, Earl of Pembroke, standing at a hazard table, one hand braced on green baize, the other idly curled around a crystal tumbler of brandy. The man was heir to the infamous Marquess of Clare and older brother to Nick. Blast. London could be small as a country village.

“Pembroke,” Percy acknowledged. “Hazard’s your game?”

Pembroke gave an indifferent shrug of the shoulder. “The game hardly makes a difference. In search of a little oblivion, like everyone else.” He craned his head and fixed cold gray eyes on Percy. The same eyes as Nick’s, but not the same at all. Pembroke’s were dissolute, jaded, and utterly, utterly bored. “Seeking the same?”

Percy nodded. It was clear Pembroke hadn’t a care, but the man was Nick’s brother, and Percy couldn’t just leave it. He angled his body so only Pembroke could hear his next words. “You need to clear out of here.”

A sardonic eyebrow lifted. “Concern about my moral well-being? From you, of all people?”

“Hardly,” Percy said, ignoring that last bit. His licentious reputation didn’t bother him as much as Society would like. “This night will have consequences. You won’t wish to become embroiled.”

Pembroke shot Percy a glance, surprisingly penetrating and sober. Then he returned his attention to the table action for a few more tosses of the dice that lost him an additional fifty quid before draining his tumbler in two great swallows. He gathered up his remaining counters and, without another word to Percy, shambled his way through the room, nimbly avoiding every strumpet who threw herself into his path. Percy slid into Pembroke’s vacated spot and set his ivory counters onto green baize. The night was set to begin.

Of a sudden, the hairs on the back of Percy’s neck prickled, and he felt it, someone’s gaze upon him. He followed the feeling around until he located the source on the far side of the room: a woman, veiled and dressed in all black. Number 9’s madam, presumably.

Unease began a slow crawl through him. Most of the madams he’d encountered in his short tenure as the Savior of St. Giles possessed a certain bearing, a brazen flash of the eye, a daring pout of the lips, and a view toward the winning angle. None of them hid behind layers of black lace.

Yet he detected a litheness to her figure suggesting freshness and, confoundingly, youth. In his experience, madams were neither fresh nor young.

The prickling sensation spread. It could be interpreted as a physical response to intrigue, but, in truth, it felt not unlike the initial stir of desire. He instantly tamped it down and pursued the other interpretation. What was her game?

“Dingo?”

Dingo. His nickname from long past Eton days. Blast.

He half pivoted to find Chauncey Talbot-Spiffington, otherwise known as Runt, waiting with an expectant look on his face. When Percy glanced back, he found the woman gone.

A beat of silence went on a tick too long. Runt’s bushy eyebrows drew together and released. The man’s feet shuffled with unease. “Just arrived in Town, have you?”

“It’s been a few months.”

“And you didn’t call on me?” Runt asked, hurt running through the question.

Percy barely contained a snort. He hadn’t the time or inclination to soothe a grown man’s wounded feelings.

“Your scar,” Runt began and trailed.

Percy felt himself go tight about the mouth.

Runt, ever the sensitive one of the old Etonian pack, must have noticed, for he continued in an obsequious rush, “It’s quite fashionable and . . . and da-dashing!”

Percy wouldn’t touch his fingertips to the scar, its silvery length running along the ridge of his right cheekbone, put there by the single slash of a French saber, his last memory before a well-aimed—or poorly, depending on one’s point of view—cannon shot blacked out his world.

“Of course, we’ve all heard tattle about your exploits, Dingo.” Runt’s expression turned commiserative. “Wouldn’t have expected such behavior from Olivia, though.”

Percy clenched his jaw. Olivia. The woman who had once been his wife. The wife he’d left on this side of the Channel for a dozen years, letting her—and the world—think him dead. Once she’d been alerted to his continued existence, she’d petitioned Parliament—with the assistance of his own father, the Duke of Arundel—to set the marriage aside and succeeded, rendering the daughter he’d never met, Lucy, a bastard.

Lucy.

The pang of guilt hit Percy with its familiar swift, sharp jab to the gut, as it always did when he thought of his daughter.

No, Percy wouldn’t be discussing Olivia or any of his family with Runt. He would only have to defend them—for they were absolutely in the right. Runt was determined to revisit the past. So, let them, and be done with it. “Where is Chippers?” Percy asked. This was the nickname for Lord Phineas Featherstone.

“Checking the betting books,” Runt supplied.

Percy plowed on with his line of questioning. “And Bongo?” Lord Jarvis Smythe-Vane.

“Oh, he didn’t come out tonight. His gout, you know.”

Percy hadn’t, but no surprise there. “And Tuppy?” Lord Harold Ponsonby.

“Tupping a wench upstairs, what else?”

Right. “And Bumpy?” Lord Basil Arbuthnot.

Runt jutted his chin toward a point behind them. “Passed out in a chair.”

Percy glanced back and spotted the unconscious man, a thread of drool hanging from his open mouth.

And that was the old Eton tribe accounted for.

To survive Eton, a boy needed a tribe, and they’d formed one based on their shared status as younger sons, spares to the heirs. With no expectations placed upon them, they’d been free to be useless to a one, and they’d run with it, Percy included. In fact, as the younger son of a powerful duke, he’d been their leader. And they were exactly who he would have become had he not sped off to the Continent and war on a wave of misguided foolhardiness. Reckless vainglory had its uses.

But Runt and his cohort weren’t the worst part of his past. Not even close.

Across the hazard table, the croupier caught his eye. “Your toss, monsieur,” the man called out in a light French accent.

Percy found a pair of dice in his hand and gave himself a mental shake. Tonight, he had an opportunity to send the worst part of his past to the devil. It was time to get on with it. “Stay if you like, Runt, but I have work to do.”

“Work?” Runt asked, as if startled by the very concept. “This is pleasure, old man.”

“For some.”

One hour later

Oblong green baize stretched ahead of Percy, a pair of dice rattling in his hand. Gathered round this hazard table stood a moneyed, bleary-eyed crowd breathless in anticipation of his next cast.
“Dingo,” whined Runt’s voice beside him, “haven’t you had enough?”

Percy smirked down at the man. When had Lord Percival Bretagne ever had enough of anything? Never once in his life had he been able to resist raising the stakes when the opportunity presented itself.

Again, he rattled the dice, this time for effect. Another thrill of anticipation shimmered through air dank with bodies long in need of a wash and a sleep. He opened his hand. “Blow on my dice for good luck.”

The ever-faithful Runt heaved a resigned sigh before doing as his old leader commanded. “Aren’t you happy with your winnings?”

“Happy?” Percy scoffed.

Happiness had become an abstract concept the day he’d engaged in his first battle on the Peninsula, acrid cannon smoke filling his lungs, rifle bullets whizzing past his ear, and the realization sunk deep into his bones that they weren’t playing toy soldiers. The stakes were infinitely higher, of life and death, and Death wasn’t playing around. In fact, judging by the broken, bloodied bodies strewn about the ground in twisted poses of which only contortionists and the dead were capable, it had become clear that Death was winning. Death always won. It was simply a matter of putting off the inevitable for as many seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years as one could manage and somehow make a difference in lives in the meantime.

How was happiness possible after one had come face-to-face with this reality?

Percy didn’t place much value in the concept of happiness. It only mattered what he did, not how he felt. Feeling had only gotten him into trouble in the past.

But this . . . A wicked smile curled up one side of his mouth . . . This was mindlessness, a state he could slip into only too readily. How he’d missed it. He let it take him into its embrace and suck him inside as he glanced down at his stacks of winnings. It did appear he might have enough to get management’s attention—and, from there, Montfort’s—yet . . . Percy wanted more.

Percy pushed his winnings, every last farthing, forward, eliciting a chorus of startled gasps, raucous yeahs!, and whistles that split the fuggy air. The only way to have enough—to have everything—was to risk everything.

Percy met the croupier’s gaze across the table. Even as the man appeared to blanch at Percy’s stake, he nodded. The odds were no friend to the reckless aristocrat on this roll, and they both knew it.

The blood whissed through Percy as he stood on the precipice of the unknown. At this moment, his purpose wasn’t solely to wreak revenge and justice upon Montfort. A wickedness flowed in his blood, one that he’d only ever been able to control when he starved it completely. Once fed, even a scrap, it took on a life of its own.

His hand began a slow, relentless shake. With every rattle, the volume of the crowd increased until it crescendoed into a loud roar. The night had been building up to this one fateful toss.

He’d neither nicked nor thrown out on his last roll. If he rolled the main, a seven, the house would win. Sevens were always the best odds.

If he rolled an eight, both the chance and the worst odds in hazard, well, matters would take an interesting turn. He would most definitely gain Montfort’s attention.

Percy flicked his hand open and let the dice fly. Across green baize they hopped, skipped, bounded, and rolled, a series of gasps following their every rotation as they bounced to a stop, their numbers staring up for the world to see.

Percy’s heart galloped in his chest, and he felt as out of breath as if he’d just run a mile at full tilt. He lifted his gaze to meet that of the croupier across the table. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of the man’s face, the smile on his lips turned rictus.

Percy almost felt badly for the croupier, for the man would have to answer to Montfort. Then Percy considered the lives this place had despoiled and destroyed, families ruined as men were reduced to paupers and women to whores. This man was part of that life.

“I’ll settle up now,” Percy spoke through the charged silence.

The croupier’s throat undulated with a hard swallow. He and Percy both knew that he didn’t have the cash on hand to pay out. He would have to summon his superior. This was the exact series of events that Percy had hoped to set in motion when he’d walked through Number 9’s front door tonight.

He was close, so close his fingers twitched with anticipation. So close was the proof he needed against Lord Bertrand Montfort, younger son of the Earl of Surrey and long-standing servant of Crown and Country. It had taken a few months of poking around to catch the whisper that Montfort had been silently investing in gaming hells and brothels around London. Once he’d held this dark, slippery bit of information, Percy understood that if he kept pursuing this path, he would eventually hold the key to Montfort’s ruin. In their rarefied world of wealth, excess, and privilege, reputation was life, and Percy would see Montfort’s destroyed. A little quid pro quo.

The croupier’s gaze shifted and widened on a point beyond Percy’s left shoulder. That was when Percy felt it: a change in the air, an electric current that rippled through the room as it passed from person to person, brightening eyes and heightening smiles. He pivoted and followed the general gaze until he found the veiled woman, her attention fixed on him.

The world stretched away, receding to a great distance. A path parted for her, she one magnet and he the other. Although he could see nothing of her features beneath the veil, her focus never wavered as she moved forward . . . toward him.

With only a few feet of Persian carpet separating them, she stopped, her lush figure—waist cinched tight, breasts pushed up—somehow on full display beneath all that black lace. Through dense air fogged by cigar smoke and brandy, he caught her scent. Honeysuckle. Another word came to mind. Sunshine. How was it possible a gaming hell madam smelled of summer at its sweetest?

At last, she opened her mouth to speak, only to hesitate at the last moment. No, not hesitate. Women like her didn’t hesitate. She’d paused for effect. “Shall we play for higher stakes?”

Percy blinked. Her voice. It was husky, a lower register than he would have guessed. Further, it held a foreign accent. The night grew more interesting by the moment.

Montfort had sent her. Percy knew it in a flash.

What he didn’t know was why.

Familiar anticipation charged through Percy, urging him on, toward the edge of the precipice that would drop him into the thick of whatever this night—and this woman—held for him. As a spy, he’d loved nothing better than a path that bent at sudden angles.

“Lead the way,” he replied, only just containing a cynical snort. What did Montfort think sending him a whore would accomplish? If this was a stratagem to catch him unawares, it was for amateurs.

The crowd, which had quieted to take in the exchange, burst free and broke into rounds of leers, hoots, and rowdy whistles. The frisson of unease returned and snaked through Percy, as if an unconscious part of himself understood that within this woman lay something he shouldn’t get tangled up in. Except . . .

When had he ever let such a feeling stop him? When hadn’t that feeling, instead, pushed him into the thick of it?

Whatever game Montfort had planned for Percy, he would play.

And he would win.


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It Was Only a Kiss

Posted February 23, 2021 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: It Was Only a Kiss
Series:
Genre:
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It Was Only a Kiss...

Violet Hotchkiss is head over heels in love with Oliver Quincy, the embodiment of the perfect English gentleman in every novel she’s ever read. So why is she kissing Will Sinclair in the garden at the Twelfth Night ball?

That Led to a Night...   

Violet always found Will to be too much—too tall, too handsome…too far out of reach for a bespectacled spinster to dream about. But one taste of Will releases something wild in Violet, something that will never be satisfied with just a kiss…

That Changed Everything…

Will always had a crush on smart, spirited Violet. But the bold woman who takes what she wants, and isn’t afraid to ask for more, is a revelation. Now he just has to convince Violet to take the bravest step of all—letting him love her.

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

29 December 1817

Miss Violet Hotchkiss never expected to walk into Sir John and Lady Sinclair’s evening soiree and fall headlong into love.

Indeed, one would hardly expect it of a bespectacled wallflower of four and twenty years who was more comfortable discussing the 1815 Corn Law than the latest in ladies’ fashion.

And yet, she had.

Only minutes earlier, Violet had been alighting from her parents’ carriage and bracing against the wintry cold with her burgundy velvet cloak wrapped tight about her, prepared for the usual sort of supper party, with all the usual local gentry.

She stopped to adjust her spectacles, which had slipped down her nose.

“Violet.” Her sister Lily rushed from her carriage, breath puffing white through the smile curving her mouth. Everyone had always agreed that of the Hotchkiss sisters Lily had the prettiest smile. It was an opinion with which Violet wholeheartedly agreed.

Lily’s arm twined through Violet’s. “Is Mr. Granville attending?” Violet asked. Only last summer Lily had become Mrs. Charles Granville. Violet still hadn’t fully adjusted to the idea of her beloved sister being a Mrs.

Lily used her fan to point out the small grouping behind them. “Charles is asking for Papa’s advice regarding an agricultural matter.” Lily leaned in conspiratorially. “I think he does it so Papa will think well of him.” Lily’s gaze flew upward and roved over the house before them. “Isn’t Somerton Manor splendidly lovely?”

Constructed of light gray stone, Somerton Manor was an elegant, rectangular house with few pediments and plain pilasters framing the front door. Perfectly symmetrical and English, it was indisputably the finest house in the neighborhood, not including the Earl and Countess of Stapleton’s magnificent estate, Willoughby Castle, which Violet didn’t include as she only saw it once a year at their annual Twelfth Night ball.

Violet gave a noncommittal murmur. It wasn’t that she disagreed with Lily’s observation. It was that her sister had made it at all. Lily had only begun commenting on other people’s houses after she’d become a married gentlelady. Violet was learning that the wedded state changed women in ways ineffable and mysterious. How lucky that she would never marry.

They took the staircase at a quick clip; such was the motivating factor of the biting wind. Of course, it was exactly the sort of night one would expect in late December. Besides, one couldn’t hold the cold against such a beautiful, clear night with the stars winking their twinkly brilliance above.

At the top, the front door swung open on smooth hinges to usher them into the inviting warmth beyond. Although Somerton Manor was a grand house from the outside, Violet had always appreciated that its interior was built to be lived in, with its downstairs of warm oak-paneled rooms that instantly made one feel cozy and at home.

After leaving their cloaks with a footman, Violet and Lily continued into the main hall, where Sir John and Lady Sinclair were receiving their guests. “If it isn’t the most lovely Mrs. Granville and the most erudite Miss Hotchkiss,” said Sir John with his familiar, paternal wink.

Violet smiled agreeably, even as she sighed on the inside. Of course.

In her thirteenth year, she’d been found shortsighted and fitted for her first pair of spectacles. In an instant, she’d gone from being a pretty-enough girl to well-read and bookish. Erudite was simply a variation on the theme. Bluestocking was yet another, but in a few years one word would surpass all others. Spinster, a word that would stick with her all the rest of her days.

Spinsterhood was the inevitable fate of well-read, bookish, erudite bluestockings, a fact that had become clear to her as their family, friends, and acquaintances had separated her and Lily into intelligent and lovely, respectively. So, Violet had taken the persona cast on her, tried it on for size, and found it fit, mostly. She enjoyed books and learning. If on occasion she viewed her sister’s life and experienced a pang of envy, it passed quickly, for she loved Lily with all her heart and begrudged her nothing.

Although, it must be admitted that a certain question did sometimes poke its sharp, little point into her: Why was that life closed off to a well-read, bookish, erudite bluestocking? It was as if the possibility never occurred to anyone else, therefore everyone expected it would never occur to her. It was easier to throw herself into books. Besides, she’d never once met a gentleman who compared to the hero of one.

“Sir John, Lady Sinclair,” Lily said, “what a perfect night for a soiree.”

“We simply had to celebrate Sinclair’s return to us,” said Lady Sinclair, as if she couldn’t quite believe the fact herself.

“Returned alive and all in one piece, I might add,” chimed Sir John on a laugh that contained a note of seriousness.

Sinclair … Will Sinclair, Sir John and Lady Sinclair’s only child, had come home after three years of travels to this and that exotic locale, clearly to the relief of his parents who had dutifully kept their neighbors informed of his latest jaunts. Lily offered her happy congratulations, and Violet smiled along. It wasn’t that she wished any harm on Sinclair. It was simply that she’d never had any doubt that he would return home, alive, and in one piece. Sinclair had always seemed a capable sort.

Sir John craned his neck around and began glancing about the hall. “Now where has the boy got off to?” But his search was cut short when Violet and Lily’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hotchkiss, entered the hall with Mr. Granville. Now the host and hostess were on to more greetings.

Lily tugged Violet’s arm. “Come with me,” she said, sotto voce. “I have news to share.”

Violet experienced a frisson equal parts excitement and dread. Since Lily’s wedding, Violet had been expecting news. Once ensconced in a quiet corner of the drawing room, Lily grabbed both of Violet’s hands and squeezed. “Can you guess my news?”

“Oh, sister,” Violet said, sudden tears springing to her eyes, “I am overcome with joy for you.” And she was. She truly, truly was. “But you shall give me a niece first. Then you can have all the boys you like.”

“Vivi,” Lily began on a laugh, “how you do love to control matters. But even you cannot influence this outcome.”

Violet’s responding smirk did the job of suppressing the familiar pang of envy. Once she’d understood she would never marry, she’d accepted she would never have children. Lily, the younger sister by two years, had been the one destined for marriage, so the sisters had begged that they be allowed to debut together. Their parents hadn’t been able to deny the wisdom of such an arrangement and assented. At their debut dance, Mr. Granville had been first to sweep Lily across the dancing floor, and her future had been set.

“Come,” Lily began, pulling Violet forward, “let us be social. Who has arrived?”

Violet gave the room a quick once-over. “The Baring-Whites are here. And Mrs. Acton.”

“Did Mrs. Baring-White bring her spaniel?”

“One must wonder if she is allowed to leave her house without it.”

Lily flashed Violet an impish grin. How Violet loved to pull that grin from her sister. They didn’t much need words to communicate.

Across the room, Mr. Granville gave Lily a nearly imperceptible nod. Lily’s smile transformed into one entirely inscrutable to Violet. She was no longer the only person in the world with whom Lily didn’t need words to communicate. It had taken a bit of getting used to.

Drawn by the magnetic force of her husband, Lily pulled a slightly annoyed Violet along. As they joined the group, Papa was saying with an affable smile, “So, that vagabond son of yours is done traveling the world?”

Sir John beamed. “I am happy to confirm all the reports are true. Sinclair is home to stay.” He gave his longtime neighbor a clap on the back. “Though I’ve had a devil of a time keeping an eye on the boy tonight. Mayhap Quincy will know.”

“Quincy?” asked Mama. Like any attentive mother of a marriageable daughter, her ear was ever attuned to the mention of a gentleman. After all, he could be moneyed and unmarried. “Who is Quincy?”

“Mr. Oliver Quincy is my beloved sister’s son,” explained Lady Sinclair. “He is paying us a brief visit on his way up to Town.”

The tension released from Mama’s shoulders. “So, he is a good sort?” she asked, relentless.

Violet glanced at Lily, so they could share a private laugh, but Lily’s attention was fixed and doting upon Mr. Granville.

“Quincy is a fine young man, to be sure.” Sir John cast his gaze about the room. “Ah, and there he is.”

Violet followed along with everyone else to locate the young gentleman. Her heart did a funny little pitter-pat in her chest. Never once in its four and twenty years had her heart behaved so.

As he navigated toward them, one couldn’t help but be taken by Mr. Quincy’s elegance of bearing and learned air. He was of a middling height that wasn’t too tall, with fine dark hair that lay in a perfect coif and large dark eyes that conveyed the impression that they weren’t too impressed by his surroundings. A man could not be too learned, but he could be too impressed. Violet had never observed a man who so precisely personified an artist’s rendering of the perfect English gentleman.

“Sir John, you desire my presence?” asked Mr. Quincy. Even the studiously enunciated syllables of his voice were just as they should be.

“Come and meet Mr. and Mrs. Hotchkiss, my boy,” said Sir John.

“Delighted,” said Mr. Quincy as he bowed over Mama’s hand.

“And their family, Mr. and Mrs. Granville,” Sir John continued.

Mr. Quincy bowed over Lily’s hand. “Charmed.”

“And Miss Hotchkiss.”

Mr. Quincy turned to Violet. A hot flush rose inside her, and her heart was off to the races. “Enchanted,” he spoke over her hand.

Violet had difficulty drawing breath. Enchanted? She had never enchanted anyone in her entire life. A breathy “Oh,” escaped her in the form of an exhale that may have ended in a bit of a giggle.

Lily cut her a sharp glance, and Violet attempted to remember herself. She wasn’t the sort of young lady who giggled.

“Ah, there is Sinclair.” Sir John smiled, his eyes alight with pride and affection.

Once again, as one they followed the direction of his pleased smile as Sinclair approached from the opposite end of the room, politely avoiding various groupings vying for his attention.

“Oh, my, but his travels seem to have agreed with him,” murmured Mama.

“Indeed,” came Lily’s breathy reply. Mr. Granville lifted an eyebrow at the appreciation in his wife’s voice.

Violet and Sinclair were of a similar age, with him being two years her elder, and as their families were friendly neighbors, they had grown up in the way those of friendly proximity did—seeing each other about the village, at general assemblies, at teas and fêtes. Although Sir John was a baronet, he had never lorded that fact about the neighborhood. Still, Violet had always kept her distance from Sinclair. For all they’d grown up in the same environ, he’d always discomfited her.

His height had been too towering. His shoulders too massive. His face too handsome. He had been quite simply too everything.

And now, he was still in possession of these qualities, yet somehow different, as if a sharper edge ran along the length of him. She couldn’t help wondering what had forged this new quality that rendered him even more forbidding, but she dismissed the curiosity in favor of a safer man to think upon: Mr. Quincy. He was a man who wasn’t too anything.

Of a sudden, a fitting comparison between these two men struck Violet. Mr. Quincy fit the ideal of the perfect hero from a novel with his smooth, refined features. And Will Sinclair? Well, he would be the rake, a man whose overwhelming handsomeness and slightly brutish exterior many a lady would find impossible to resist.

Sinclair first greeted Mr. and Mrs. Hotchkiss, as was proper. Mama’s cheeks looked a trifle flushed as she returned his felicitations. Next, he turned to Mr. and Mrs. Granville, congratulating them on their summer nuptials.

During this time, Violet had taken a great interest in the seams of her satin gloves. Then she felt them: eyes upon her. Sinclair’s, she knew it. He possessed one of those gazes that was ever unflinching.

Once the silence had gone on a beat too long, she relented and met his deep blue eyes. Perplexingly, her breath caught in her lungs and refused to be reasonable and release. She felt strange and exposed, as if Sinclair could see down to the cockles of her soul. She didn’t remember this about him.

Sir John cleared his throat. “Miss Hotchkiss, you’ll remember Sinclair?”

Sinclair’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Miss Hotchkiss?” he asked.

Violet had forgotten how deep his voice was. Too deep.

All eyes swung toward her. She forced an uneasy laugh. She never did enjoy being at the center of a gathering’s attention. “That has been my name these last four and twenty years,” she chirped lightly, which did nothing to dispel the scowl on Sinclair’s face.

“But how is it you’re unwed?” he asked.

Violet blinked.

Had he truly asked such a question? In company?

He had.

She opened her mouth and closed it, flummoxed and speechless for the first time in her life.