Taking up their respective positions for the start of the quadrille, Lucy shot a quick glance at Lord Summersby, who was standing right beside her. "Thank you," she whispered as the music started, and two other couples began their turn about the dance floor.
"I cannot say that you are welcome," he muttered in response, "for I despise deception."
"I'm sorry, my lord, but I saw no other way in which to make your acquaintance."
"Really?" Though his face remained fixed upon the other awaiting couple across from them, his irritation was quite apparent. "I'm not sure what game you're playing, Miss Blackwell, but I can a.s.sure you that I am far from amused."
Before Lucy could manage a response, he'd taken her by the arm and led her forward, turning her about before leading her in a wide circle while the other couples looked on. As soon as they were back in their places, Lucy pulled together every ounce of courage she possessed. This was the reason she'd come, and she would have only one chance at getting it right. "I have a proposal," she whispered. "Truly, I am in need of your service."
For a moment, she wasn't entirely sure if he'd heard her. Heart hammering in her chest, her legs growing weak with expectation, she feared she might suddenly collapse from sheer nerves.
"And what service might that be?" he finally asked, leading her forward once again.
"I've done my research, my lord, and am quite familiar with your career. In fact, you are regarded as the best foreign agent that England has to offer, and as it happens, I am in need of precisely such a man. I will pay you handsomely enough, of that I promise you." She wondered if there would be enough money in the world to pay him for partic.i.p.ating in her mad endeavor.
Lord Summersby shot her a sideways glance. "As tempting as your offer may be, I fear you must take your business elsewhere. You see, Miss Blackwell, I am soon to be married and have every intention of settling down to a peaceful family life in the country, away from all the excitement that the Foreign Office has to offer."
Apparently, she had far less time to set her plan in motion than she had hoped. If Lord Summersby married someone else, then. . .She had intended to let him in on her scheme, but if he'd already proposed to another woman, then she might have to resort to more desperate measures.
Her mind reeled as he steered her smoothly back toward their places. The music faded, and all the couples bowed and curtsied-all but Lucy. She was far too busy making a hasty change of plans.
"I take it that your so-called research didn't mention that I am betrothed?" He was leading her back toward the periphery of the ballroom.
"It did not."
"Well, it has been a rather hasty decision, I suppose."
Lucy stopped walking, forcing Lord Summersby to a halt as well. Staring up at him, she searched his eyes for the answer to a question that she dared not ask. Until that very moment, William had paid very little attention to the physical attributes of the woman with whom he'd been dancing. Not only had the lighting been quite poor outside on the terrace, but he'd also been so angry that she'd had the audacity to slither her way into his life through lies and deceit, that her looks had been the last thing on his mind.
Since then, he'd barely glanced in her direction, but now that he was given no choice but to take a good look at her, he couldn't help but feel his heart take an extra beat-a rather disconcerting feeling, given the fact that he intensely disliked her. However, as well as that might be, he could not dismiss her exceptional beauty. Her hair was fiery red, her eyes intensely green, and her bone structure so fine and delicate that she could have worn a sack and still looked elegant. But the gown that Miss Blackwell was wearing was by no means any sack. Instead, it showed off a figure that boasted of soft curves in all the right places.
Clenching his jaw, William swallowed hard and forced himself to ignore the temptation. He would marry Annabelle, and that would be that.
"Do you love her?" Miss Blackwell suddenly asked, her head tilted upward at a slight angle.
By deuce, even her voice was delightful to listen to. And those imploring eyes of hers. . . No, he'd be d.a.m.ned if he'd allow her to ensnare him with her womanly charms. She'd practically made a fool of both his sister and his father; she'd get no sympathy from him. Not now, not ever. "You and I are hardly well enough acquainted with one another for you to take such liberties in your questions, Miss Blackwell. My relationship to Lady Annabelle is of a personal nature, and certainly not one that I am about to discuss with you."
Miss Blackwell blinked. "Then you do not love her," she said simply.
Good grief, but the woman was insufferable. Had he at any point in time told her that he was not in love with his fiancee? Why the devil would she draw such a conclusion? It was maddening and quite beyond him to understand the workings of her mind. "I hold her in the highest regard," he said.
Miss Blackwell stared back at him with an increased measure of doubt in her eyes. "More reason for me to believe that you do not love her."
"Miss Blackwell, if I did not know any better, I should say that you are either mad or deaf-perhaps even both. At no point have I told you that I do not love her, yet you are quite insistent upon the matter."
"That is because, my lord, it is in everything you are saying and everything that you are not. If you truly love her, you would not have spent a moment's hesitation in professing it. It is therefore my belief that you do not love her but that you are marrying her simply out of obligation."
Why the blazes he was having this harebrained conversation with a woman he'd only just met, much less liked, was beyond him. But the beginnings of a smile that now played upon her lips did nothing short of make him catch his breath. With a sigh of resignation, he slowly nodded his head. "Well done, Miss Blackwell. You have found me out."
Her smile broadened. "Then it really doesn't matter whom you marry, as long as you marry. Is that not so?"
He frowned, immediately on guard at her sudden enthusiasm. "Not exactly, no. The woman I marry must be one of breeding, of a gentle nature and graceful bearing. Lady Annabelle fits all of those criteria rather nicely, and with time, I am more than confident that we shall become quite fond of one another."
The impossible woman had the audacity to roll her eyes. "All I really wanted to know was whether or not anyone's heart might be jeopardized if you were persuaded to marry somebody else, That is all."
"Miss Blackwell, I can a.s.sure you that I have no intention of marrying anyone other than Lady Annabelle. She and I have a mutual agreement. We are both honorable people. Neither one of us would ever consider going back on our word."
"I didn't think as much," she mused, and before William had any time to consider what she might be about to do, she'd thrown her arms about his neck, pulled him toward her, and placed her lips against his.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR.
Born in Denmark, Sophie Barnes spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places around the world. She has lived in five countries on three continents and speaks Danish, English, French, Spanish, and Romanian. She has studied design in Paris and New York and has a bachelor's degree from Parsons The New School For Design. Most impressive of all, she's been married to the same man three times, in three different countries and in three different dresses.
While living in Africa, Sophie turned to her lifelong pa.s.sion: writing. When she's not busy dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies, and, of course, reading. She currently lives on the East Coast.
Visit Sophie Barnes's website at www.sophiebarnes.com. You can also find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @BarnesSophie.
Visit www.AuthorTracker.com for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins authors.
Also by Sophie Barnes Lady Alexandra's Excellent Adventure How Miss Rutherford Got Her Groove Back Give in to your impulses . . .
Read on for a sneak peek at seven brand-new e-book original tales of romance from Avon Books.
Available now wherever e-books are sold.
THREE SCHEMES AND A SCANDAL.
By Maya Rodale SKIES OF STEEL.
THE ETHER CHRONICLES.
By Zoe Archer FURTHER CONFESSIONS OF A SLIGHTLY NEUROTIC HITWOMAN.
By JB Lynn THE SECOND SEDUCTION OF A LADY.
By Miranda Neville TO h.e.l.l AND BACK.
A LEAGUE OF GUARDIANS NOVELLA.
By Juliana Stone MIDNIGHT IN YOUR ARMS.
By Morgan Kelly SEDUCED BY A PIRATE.
By Eloisa James An Excerpt from
THREE SCHEMES AND A SCANDAL.
by Maya Rodale Enter the Regency world of the Writing Girls series in Maya Rodale's charming tale of a scheming lady, a handsome second son, and the trouble they get into when the perfect scandal becomes an even more perfect match.
Most young ladies spent their pin money on hats and hair ribbons; Charlotte spent hers on bribery.
At precisely three o'clock, Charlotte sipped her lemonade and watched as a footman dressed in royal blue livery approached James with the unfortunate news that something at the folly needed his immediate attention.
James raked his fingers through his hair-she thought it best described as the color of wheat at sunset on harvest day. He scowled. It did nothing to diminish his good looks. Combined with that scar, it made him appear only more brooding, more dangerous, more rakish.
She hadn't seen him in an age . . . Not since George Coney's funeral.
Even though the memory brought on a wave of sadness and rage, Charlotte couldn't help it: she smiled broadly when James set off for the folly at a brisk walk. Her heart began to pound. The plan was in effect.
Just a few minutes later, the rest of the garden party gathered 'round Lord Hastings as he began an ambling tour of his gardens, including the vegetables, his collection of flowering shrubs, and a series of pea gravel paths that meandered through groves of trees and other landscaped "moments."
Charlotte and Harriet were to be found skulking toward the back of the group, studiously avoiding relatives-such as Charlotte's brother, Brandon, and his wife, Sophie, who had been watching Charlotte a little too closely for comfort ever since The Scheme That Had Gone Horribly Awry. Harriet's mother was deep in conversation with her bosom friend, Lady Newport.
A few steps ahead was Miss Swan Lucy Feathers herself. Today she was decked in a pale muslin gown and an enormous bonnet that had been decorated with what seemed to be a shrubbery. Upon closer inspection, it was a variety of fresh flowers and garden clippings. Even a little bird (fake, one hoped) had been nestled into the arrangement. Two wide, fawn-colored ribbons tied the millinery event to her head.
Charlotte felt another pang, and then-Lord above-she suffered second thoughts. First the swan bonnet, and now this! James had once broken her heart horribly, but could he really marry someone with such atrocious taste in bonnets? And, if not, should the scheme progress?
"Lovely day for a garden party, is it not?" Harriet said brightly to Miss Swan Lucy.
"Oh, indeed it is a lovely day," Lucy replied. "Though it would be so much better if I weren't so vexed by these bonnet strings. This taffeta ribbon is just adorable, but immensely itchy against my skin."
"What a ghastly problem. Try loosening the strings?" Charlotte suggested. Her other thought she kept to herself: Or remove the monstrous thing entirely.
"It's a bit windy. I shan't wish it to blow away," Lucy said nervously. Indeed, the wind had picked up, bending the hat brim. On such a warm summer day as this, no one complained.
"A gentle summer breeze. The sun is glorious, though," Harriet replied.
"This breeze is threatening to send off my bonnet, and I shall freckle terribly without it in this sun. Alas!" Lucy cried, her fingers tugging at her bonnet strings.
"What is wrong with freckles?" Harriet asked. The correct answer was nothing since Harriet possessed a smattering of freckles across her nose and rosy cheeks.
"We should find you some shade," Charlotte declared. "Shouldn't we, Harriet?"
"Yes. Shade. Just the thing," Harriet echoed. She was frowning, probably in vexation over the comment about freckles. Charlotte thought there were worse things, such as being a feather-brain like Lucy.
Charlotte suffered another pang. She loathed second thoughts and generally avoided them. She reminded herself that while James had once been her favorite person in England, he had since become the sort of man who brooded endlessly and flirted heartlessly.
Never mind what he had done to George Coney . . .
An Excerpt from
SKIES OF STEEL.
THE ETHER CHRONICLES.
by Zoe Archer In the world of The Ether Chronicles, the Mechanical War rages on, and appearances are almost always deceiving . . . Read on for a glimpse of Zoe Archer's latest addition to this riveting series.
He had to be here. His airship, Bielyi Voron, had been spotted nearby. Through the judicious use of bribery, she had learned that he frequented this tavern. If he wasn't here, she would have to come up with a whole new plan, but that would take costly time. Every hour, every day that pa.s.sed meant the danger only increased.
She walked past another room, then halted abruptly when she heard a deep voice inside the chamber speaking in Russian. Cautiously, she peered around the doorway. A man sat in a booth against the far wall. The man she sought. Of that she had no doubt.
Captain Mikhail Mikhailovich Denisov. Rogue Man O' War.
Like most people, Daphne had heard of the Man O' Wars, but she'd never seen one in person. Not until this moment. Newspaper reports and even cinemagraphs could not fully do justice to this amalgam of man and machine. The telumium implants that all Man O' Wars possessed gave them incredible might and speed, and heightened senses. Those same implants also created a symbiotic relationship between Man O' Wars and their airships. They both captained and powered these airborne vessels. The implants fed off of and engendered the Man O' Wars' natural strength of will and courage.
Even standing at the far end of the room, Daphne felt Denisov's energy-invisible, silent waves of power that resonated in her very bones. As a scholar, she found the phenomenon fascinating. As a woman, she was . . . troubled.
Hard angles comprised his face: a boldly square jaw, high cheekbones, a decidedly Slavic nose. The slightly almond shape of his eyes revealed distant Tartar blood, while his curved, full mouth was all voluptuary, framed by a trimmed, dark goatee. An arresting face that spoke of a life fully lived. She would have looked twice at him under any circ.u.mstances, but it was his hair that truly made her gape.
He'd shaved most of his head to dark stubble, but down the center he'd let his hair grow longer, and it stood up in a dramatic crest, the tip colored crimson. Dimly, she remembered reading about the American Indians called Mohawks, who wore their hair in just such a fashion. Never before had she seen it on a non-Indian.
By rights, the style ought to look outlandish, or even ludicrous. Yet on Denisov, it was precisely right-dangerous, unexpected, and surprisingly alluring. Rings of graduated sizes ran along the edge of one ear, and a dagger-shaped pendant hung from the lobe of his other ear.
Though Denisov sat in a corner booth, his size was evident. His arms stretched out along the back of the booth, and he sprawled in a seemingly casual pose, his long legs sticking out from beneath the table. A small child could have fit inside each of his tall, buckled boots. He wore what must have been his Russian Imperial Aerial Navy long coat, but he'd torn off the sleeves, and the once-somber gray wool now sported a motley a.s.sortment of chains, medals, ribbons, and bits of clockwork. A deliberate show of defiance. His coat proclaimed: I'm no longer under any government's control.
If he wore a shirt beneath his coat, she couldn't tell. His arms were bare, save for a thick leather gauntlet adorned with more buckles on one wrist.
Despite her years of fieldwork in the world's faraway places, Daphne could confidently say Denisov was by far the most extraordinary-looking individual she'd ever seen. She barely noticed the two men sitting with him, all three of them laughing boisterously over something Denisov said.
His laugh stopped abruptly. He trained his quartz blue gaze right on her.
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