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When she's widowed, lonely, pining for a man she never could have, she should start a business, take an interest in the world and oh, by the way, pay off her ingrate dead husband's gambling debts.
So what happens when the love of her life reappears in her parlor?
To find a wife for him?
Then, wants her to "audition," too?
Yes, I know you see where I'm going with this.
Lady Varney is wise, but oh so susceptible to a certain American pirate-turned-viscount's charm.
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Your nibble of my newest cherry?
Here it is!
Excerpt, Copyright 2014, Cerise DeLand. All rights reserved.
Kitty stiffened her backbone, but felt no stronger than a floundering mackerel. How she took the circular staircase down to her drawing room was a mystery, given her knees of jelly.
“Buck up, Puss,” she chastised herself. She pulled open the double doors herself rather than call her butler and crowd the occasion with unnecessary others. She needed to look upon Justin Belmont at this particular moment alone.
And oh, my. Yes. To realize that the newly dubbed Viscount Belmont, American-born, Englishman by blood, nobleman now by adoption and the entail, was even more devastatingly handsome than a decade ago when the world seemed fresh and full of positive possibilities.
“My Lord Belmont.” Kitty sailed toward him where he stood before her fireplace, her expression, she hoped, one of civility. My lord, how can you shake my sanity so easily with that harsh look? That painful curiosity in your hazel eyes?
Here before her stood the man who had saved her from lascivious Frenchmen more than a decade ago. Huge and imposing as Satan then, he was now more muscular, his face more angular, his hair more raven against skin more pale. In clothes that were better tailored and more form-fitting than the loose linen shirts that once had flowed to his fingertips, he was now the epitome of a titled English gentleman. He gave no hint of the American privateer who had captured her body with his boldness, her mind with his intellect and her heart with his artless charm.
She walked forward, her gaze up at his imperial height, her hand out for him to take.
He touched her fingertips, his own cold as the grave. “Lady Varney. Kind of you to receive me.”
You don’t sound as though you think me kind. You sound…dismayed, appalled, even—dear god—disgusted that you are here.
“Please, my lord, do sit with me.” She nodded to one settee, and as he complied, she took the one facing him. His eyes, such a myriad of earthen colors, faceted in the lamplight of late afternoon. They flowed over her hair, her lips, her breasts, her fingers. Everywhere his gaze touched, her body pulsed, remembering how once he had looked at her with desire. Not this…this indifference. That sparked her to lie with her next words, “I am delighted you have come to see me.”
He did not even breathe as he said, “Are you now?”
“Of course,” she countered his challenge, but stayed true to her manners by adding, “I have heard of your recent good fortune.”
He cocked a long black brow. “When the news is published in the scandal sheets as well as the social notes, nothing in London is a secret.”
She licked her lower lip. “Very little.”
“But this service of yours,” he said with measured tone as he circled a hand in the air to denote her business, “this is a tidbit only the men of the ton share with each other.”
She hastened to agree. “Those who need help have found my—”
“Assistance? That is what you call your match-making, am I correct?” One corner of his mouth tipped up and she could not say if the move denoted humor or ruefulness. “Whatever your services, I need them.”
His directness had her fighting for a response.
“I hear you pride yourself on your knowledge of human nature,” he prodded her.
She lifted her chin. “Or to be exact, the nature of men.”
He barked in laughter. “If you knew that, dearest woman, you and I would not be sitting here.”
Should she show him the door? She bristled and sought to hold her ground, reprimand him, if she could. “You asked for this appointment, my lord.”
“It seemed the only way to see you,” he shot back.
“Perhaps I am mistaken, but I was under the impression that you requested a Sunday afternoon appointment because—”
“Because since my newfound status as a peer of the realm was announced in September, you have not invited me to any of your dinner parties.”
“Forgive me, but you really wished an invitation to dinner?” Incredulous at that conclusion, she felt a thrill sweep up her spine that he might indeed not seek a wife. “I—I am only recently out of my year of mourning for my husband, Justin, and those who may dine at my table with me do not include bachelors.”
“Especially bachelors whom you once knew? Ah, the rules of this blasted society!” He leaned forward, his gaze at once tender and yearning. “Kitty—”
“Please, sir, I am still Lady Varney to you.”
“You never were that to me. Besides, you just called me Justin.” His eyes twinkled.
“I did not!”
“Of course, you did.” He sat back, crossed one long leg over the other and seemed too well satisfied with himself to soothe her ruffled senses.
“We are here to discuss business,” she insisted with a hauteur that had him narrowing his gaze on her.
It was not a kindly glance, either, but the fierce glare he’d worn so long ago as he climbed over the sides of the French Cyr to rescue her from those bastards.
He blinked. Drew back and appraised her.
Good. At least we are now on firm footing. Two equals about to do business. Not two older people who had cared passionately for each other in their youth.
She tipped her head when he remained silent. “Please tell me what you wish.”
He set his jaw, never having cared for anyone to give him orders. “As you know, I am to inherit the Earl of Belmont’s titles and estates. He is ailing. Sadly, I might add. I have come to care for my uncle deeply in the past six years. When I first set foot in England eleven years ago, I must say I had no idea he and I would ever get on. But we did. Do. Save for one issue.”
Kitty nodded, knowing precisely the matter that divided them. Touchy subject though it was, she went on boldly, because that was her wont, because it was her business to be forthright and because she knew this man very well. Or once had. “He wants you to marry.”
Justin seemed to retreat even further into himself. His jaw firmed. His lips thinned. His large eyes turned to glittering stones. “He wishes me to marry an heiress with title, high social standing and a suitable dowry. To put a fine point on it, he wants the perfect woman.”
“The earl thinks appropriately. His titles are six hundred years old and his estates are numerous and bring in a sizeable sum each year.”
Justin snorted. “My uncle was right about you.”
Kitty felt what would come next would not be a compliment. “How so?”
“He declares there is not much you do not know about the peers of the realm, their income or their need for propriety.”
“To learn the genealogies of the famous one hundred families was a favorite pastime for a lonely little girl.”
His features softened to a genuine compassion that made her heart ache. “You were alone as a child?”
She swallowed, not wishing to remember her youth. “I do have one sister, younger by ten years. But our parents were preoccupied with society. Hence, the house was often cold and dark. But the library was a wonderful room, warm and full of enchanting tales. Not all of them were fiction.”
His mouth spread wide in a grin and her memory of how those lips felt on her own was one she told herself could not be so fresh after more than a decade. Yet, it was.
She tipped her head, unable to suppress a smile. “Please tell me about the kind of woman you wish me to seek for you.”
“Ah. Yes.” He scowled, his glittering eyes hard as glass. “First, she must be lovely.”
“Of course.” No less for such a striking man. Besides, a plain woman would be intimidated by a husband who was so damned handsome.
“Blonde?” Hair color was often listed by a man, but not usually this early in the discussion.
She shifted. That specific? “I see.”
“She must be a peer in her own right.”
Kitty knit her brows, recalling how her own barony of writ had been the lure to Henry. “Why is this important?”
“Her own blue-blood complements my lack. Since I was born on the wrong side of the blanket, a lady in deed secures my own legitimacy.”
Kitty’s mind was racing. How many single golden-haired ladies who were titled in their own right could she count? Four? Five?
“It also enhances the reputation of any of my offspring.”
“True. I had not thought of that.”
Looking innocent as a cherub, he lifted a palm. “You see my logic.”
“Certainly.” Dear god, a taskmaster. “What else might I add to her qualifications?” A huge dowry? That’s what the ton says the old Earl demands of you.
“She must be shorter than I. Talented at the piano forte. A good conversationalist.”
“Really, how interesting.” Her gaze wandered to her own French piano. She frowned and noted, “Most men would have asked that she be a wizard at cards.”
“Most bachelors,” she ventured, “want to ensure they keep their money in the family.”
“Oh, never doubt, my dear Kitty, that I have other requirements perhaps more astonishing than not caring about my future wife’s ability at the card table.”
Oh, my. This was the point at which many men told her they wanted peculiar qualities in their spouse. She hadn’t expected any oddities from Justin. Would she be disillusioned as well as surprised? And even more jealous? “Do tell me what they are.”
“I want someone versed in the art of conjugal bliss.”
Was she gaping at him? “I’m sorry. I supposed, I mean, I presumed—”
“You thought I wanted a virgin?”
“I did. Most men do.”
“Why ever not?” Was that her own shrill voice?
A grin flashed over his features. “I also want someone who has had a child.”
“A—?” Kitty blinked, clearing her impression of this man who now seemed suddenly so calculating. “Pardon me?”
“I need an heir. I need to be assured that the woman I marry can conceive and carry a child to term, birth him well and rear him. This means she must be of good constitution. After all, I will need not one child but at least two. Preferably three.”
Kitty could not believe her ears at his extraordinary list, but nodded and went on with the topic. “Raised by her, of course.”
“I want no fainting lily. No frail Bess. And no parade of nurses and governesses.”
“But surely, you need one,” she babbled, “ of each.”
“Of course. One governess. One nurse. And one loving mother.”
“I see.” Kitty began to have a warm feeling in the pit of her stomach that signaled either rage or a headache. Stress like this reminded her of verbal sparing with Henry who thankfully had gone to his Maker. The cure for that had been for her to run to her garden. Prune her roses. Trim her yews. At the moment, she could do neither, but deal with Justin and his demands. “You are being very specific.”
“Almost too much so.”
“Why do you say that?”
She rose to her feet, the sensation of standing so quickly made her head light. Airy. Euphoria had her swaying. So unexpected was this feeling that she walked toward the fireplace and put a steadying hand to the mantel. “Let me recount your requirements.”
He nodded as he sat in his chair, looking so infernally regal and congenial that she wanted to gather the fine lapels of his frockcoat in her fists and shake him. “Proceed.”
“You want a young woman, an heiress with wealth—”
He raised a hand to make her pause. “She need not be young. Too young and she is not useful to me as a wife who can bear children.”
“Quite. Shall we say that you want a seasoned woman? Yes?”
He nodded. “Go on.”
“Blonde. Golden-haired, specifically. Shorter than you, so then she must be five-feet-four or five inches tall. Good at the piano, in the assembly hall and the ballroom. Versed in the bedroom. A woman who has already borne a child and who wishes to bear more. She must also enjoy the process of raising them. Anything I have missed?”
He let his gaze drift up to her cap of golden curls, then down to lock on her eyes. “That is an excellent summary.”
She braced herself for what she was now about to say. “I have made matches for men for a long time.”
“Ever since you began to emerge from mourning for your husband.”
She gave Justin a small smile. Realizing he knew this about her was a delight. “Yes, and I have created some very fine marriages. Though not all of my couples have yet taken vows, those five who did, are very happy.”
Justin brushed imaginary lint from his trousers. “So I have heard.”
“But these requirements you list are unusual.”
“I am a very exacting man.”
“You are. Your friends declare it. I hear your tailor does, too. Your butler.”
“I shall have to reprimand my man for engaging in gossip,” he told her but his eyes and his lips quirked in amusement.
She tipped her head, unable to resist grinning at him and learning more. “Your butler is a good friend of my cook. They talk often.”
“To you as well, it seems.”
“My sources are legion. They help me with the work I do.” She raised her brows. “You must realize to match-make I need to know many facts about people.”
“A necessity of your occupation.” He winked at her, sending her back to days on his ship when she’d been so entranced by his charm.
She cleared her throat and returned to the subject of his visit. “Your list limits me severely.”
“I am aware of that.”
“There are few women who possess all the qualifications.”
He rose and came to stand before her.
So close now, she breathed his cologne. Smelled the mint on his breath. Admired the dimple in his left cheek and the facets of green and brown in his large heavy-lidded eyes. “In fact, there are only three women who meet all of your requirements.”
“Ah. But wait, you have not heard them all.”
“No? Preposterous! There is a very small pool of possible candidates, Justin. To add more requirements would be burdensome—”
“But my fortune will be very large. My homes, here and in the country, are grand estates. I will be married to this woman for many decades, and I need the best companion possible.” He frowned, very determined looking. “I have the right to declare to whom I shall be joined!”
“Precisely so, my lord, but we must be prudent.”
“You be prudent! I shall be as I am!”
His virulence shocked her.
“Your fees are high. I shall have whom I want! Who is best suited to me.” He strode closer and seized her arms, his powerful body dwarfing hers. Once his might had been comforting, but now, full of fury, his size made her wince. She had been intimidated by her husband far too often and she would not be by any man ever again.
She stiffened her spine. “Tell me your other requirements.”
“She must spend twenty-four hours with me at Belmont Manor.”
“Oh, I see.” She let out a breath, relieved. “You want her to visit.”
“No, I want her in my bed.”
Kitty blinked. “I...I’m sorry. You want her—?”
“Naked. I want to learn if she likes men. Me, to be exact.”
WHO IS CERISE DELAND?
An author acclaimed for her eloquence and scintillating tales of romance and suspense, Cerise DeLand writes historical and contemporary novels with spice and charm.
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