Book Series: Windermeres in Love

Mr. Sinclair Beguiles a Bluestocking

Posted October 18, 2022 by Danielle in / 0 Comments

Title: Mr. Sinclair Beguiles a Bluestocking
Series: Windermeres in Love #.5
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.

***Please Note: This novella was previously published as It Was Only A Kiss.

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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

29 December 1818

Miss Violet Hotchkiss never expected to walk into Sir John and Lady Sinclair’s evening soirée 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 Holland’s magnificent estate, Welles 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 yoked onto 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 soirée.”

“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 apprised 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 further 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 sense 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’d 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.


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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: Windermeres in Love #1
Genre:
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Release date: July 28, 2022

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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