Book 1 WICKED AND WONDERFUL

Hi, Everyone!  Here’s the new look to WICKED AND WONDERFUL.  We’ve changed up the concept with the intention of bringing out the next several books with a similar appearance. ALSO, see below for the original cover look from last summer…

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Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00040]Her heart may long for more…

Judith Lovington escaped a vile man years ago and found sanctuary in a traveling troupe of actors. Fending off the unwanted attentions of rakish gentlemen has become second nature to her. But when Lord Kelthorne begins his assault, never has temptation been stronger. How will she withstand his heated kisses when he represents all that she lost so many years ago and all that she desires now?

But his wicked intentions drive her into his arms…

Kelthorne meant only to have a little fun when he first caught and kissed Judith in his apple orchard. Though intent on mending his ways and marrying a proper young miss, he can’t forget the lovely songstress and sets about to break down her every reserve. As he takes his stolen kisses, however, his clever seductions set to work on his own heart. But will he surrender to love at long last?

And here is the original cover look from last summer just in case you might have already purchased this book!

 

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And now, as an introduction to my sweet Regency work, here is the complete first chapter of WICKED AND WONDERFUL!

Enjoy!!!

Excerpt from WICKED AND WONDERFUL

Chapter One

Somerset, England 1818

“Foolish, foolish dare!”

Judith Lovington raced through the orchard, stolen apples caught in her thick wool scarf. At the far end of the orchard, a man on horseback rode parallel to her position.

She had erred wretchedly and knew quite well that if she could see him, even though only leaf-shaped bits of moonlight were scattered on the ground, then he could most certainly see her. What rotten luck that this man had chosen to ride his horse at so late an hour, and at that in an orchard.

She watched his head rise. She stood very still hoping that perhaps the dark, boy’s clothing she was wearing, borrowed from the troupe’s vast store of costumes, would make her but a shadow in the orchard. Her heart pounded as she waited. Suddenly, he spurred his horse in her direction. He had seen her.

She groaned, pushed her hat down hard about her ears, turned around abruptly and began to run. All the while, stolen apples dropped to the ground in dull thuds from the shawl clutched to her chest. How could she have allowed herself to be persuaded to enter the Earl of Kelthorne’s orchard in the first place.

She stumbled more than once but managed to right herself and keep running.

From behind, the man yelled after her, none too politely. “Stay a moment, young halfling. A word with you, and then my riding crop, for I promise you I mean to beat you within an inch of your life. At the very least twill mean the stocks for you and I will only now be made content by throwing half a dozen cabbages at your head.”

The man, whose diction bespoke the gentleman, was clearly outraged by her crime. Stealing was a terrible crime and often punished by the severest methods. She should never have allowed Charles Hemyock to provoke her to the deed. From his first joining the troupe nearly a year past, he had barely had a civil word for her. He was arrogant and cruel, and she did not like him above half. But when he had called her a worthless female with little wit and no bottom at all, just like all the other females of the dramatic troupe, she felt obligated to vindicate not just herself, but her sex as well.

So he had dared her to collect a dozen apples from Kelthorne’s orchard and she had accepted his challenge. Although she now thought he may have been right about her lack of wit, certainly her lack of sense, for here she was, being chased by a man intent on doing her serious injury and in some danger of being brought before a magistrate. Visions of dangling from Tyburn Tree pressed her to move faster still.

She glanced back again. He would be on her in a trice for she could hardly outrun his horse. Still, she ran, slipping through the orchard sideways, moving from row to row of thickly-leafed trees in hopes of forcing him from his horse. She might then have a chance to escape, for the nearby hill was thick with growth and she knew how to hide. She had at the very least some practice in that skill.

As she neared the edge of the orchard, she glanced again and saw that she had made some progress. He was having difficulty, just as she had hoped, navigating his horse after her. She felt a sudden rush of exhilaration believing she now had a chance to escape when she heard a terrible sound, the deep bark of a large dog, not too far distant.

If the hound caught her, she would be in the basket, indeed.

Glancing once more over her shoulder, she saw moonlight glint off the dusky coat of a bounding dog heading in her direction. Her heart sank as fear engulfed her chest. She ran faster still. She dropped the rest of the apples as well as her shawl. She raced for the woods. She did not know how she might escape now, but she meant to make every effort.

She held to the last vestige of hope until she heard the wheezing of the dog behind her and suddenly found herself shoved forwardthen landing, fortunately, on a patch of grassy turf at the very edge of the orchard.

“Rufus!” the man shouted from a distance. “Desist!”

Judith found herself pressed to the ground. The big dog was standing on her back. At the same time, she covered her face with her arms fearing that she would soon feel the creature’s teeth tearing at her flesh. Her heart pounded in her chest so that the top of her head hurt. She felt dizzy and more frightened than she had in her entire life, even more than on the day she had run away from home some eight years earlier. Had death come to her at last?

The dog sniffed her neck and throat. Judith prepared for the worst, then she suddenly felt the wet lick of his long tongue.

“Oh-h-h,” she said in disgust. “I believe I would rather you had bit me, you abominable creature. Do get off. How heavy you are.”

The beast, having appeared to understand her, leaped aside, forcing the breath from her once more. She turned to face him and only barely avoided another wet assault by turning away from him and pressing her hand against his muzzle. He licked her fingers instead, then began to whine. His friendly nature became more apparent with each whimper so that there was nothing for it. She sat up and began to rub his ears. She could not help but smile as she spoke to him in a soft voice. “I had a dog like you once—the same shaggy fur, of that I am certain. A delightful mongrel.”

The dog whined a little more.

“There’s a good boy, Rufus,” she said. “And what a horrible but very sweet dog you are. However, I do not hesitate to say that your master will most certainly be most displeased with this performance.” She glanced up and watched as the horseman approached. Rufus whined again in response to her speech as though trying to offer a reasonable explanation for his conduct. At the same time, he laid a paw on her arm. “Well, I am in the basket now. See what you have done and I was so close to making my escape.”

Rufus tossed his head and barked.

Judith remained on the ground and felt for the sheathed dagger she wore strapped to her leg beneath her clothing. The voluminous breeches she wore would allow her to reach the dagger quite easily, but she would not do so unless the situation became desperate. She was well able to defend herself if need be, but she would hardly serve the troupe were she to do injury to a gentleman who must have some relationship with Portislow Castle, thereby possibly incurring the wrath of the owner. The troupe was presently indebted to the Earl of Kelthorne who was permitting them to camp in his field near the orchard.

The stranger dismounted and tied his reins to a nearby apple tree. The orchard was quite dark in shadow, but moonlight served to reveal three things: he was tall, his hair was wavy and longer than most, and his face appeared to be a collection of very strong planes indicating a rather determined disposition. His present sentiments were evident in that he walked with a brisk gait, he clenched his fingers into fists, and hunched his shoulders ever so slightly.

“Rufus,” he called stridently. “You are a monstrous disappointment. Come.”

Only when Judith ceased kneading his ears, however, did Rufus slink toward the tall gentleman.

When the dog sat obediently beside him, he looked down at her. “Do I apprehend correctly that you are not a boy after all?”

“As you have said,” she stated, staring up at him.

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Lord Kelthorne looked down in bewilderment at the figure sitting on the ground. How greatly shocked he had been to hear not only the voice of a young woman, but a quite genteel voice as well.

How strange, yet in a way very promising.

A breeze caused moonlight to flicker over a shiny wave of dark curls that hung down the woman’s back. Somewhere in her flight, or perhaps Rufus’s assault, her hat had fallen away.

Despite all his newly formed good intentions toward womankind in general—truly he did mean to reform since he would soon take a wife—a smile slowly overtook his lips. “You have given me a shock, my little thief. I thought you were a lad.”

As he watched her gain her feet, a warm, familiar sensation set a quick fire to his veins. Her legs were encased in snug boots over white stockings and the oversized breeches she wore did not quite meet her knees. She was in that sense shockingly underdressed.

From years of experience, he knew precisely how to orchestrate the next several minutes in order to bring the young lady to just the right tilt of romantic inclination. He would kiss her. Yes, at the very least he would kiss her. A lady wearing such a disguise would probably allow him to do more. He looked her up and down. How odd to think that a ride at nearly midnight for the sole purpose of relieving some of his present frustrations would have resulted in such an exquisite opportunity.

She straightened her shoulders. “What do you mean to do with me, sir?”

He stepped close to her and caught her chin with the tips of his fingers. “I have not yet decided.”

The scent of lavender rose in the air. How intriguing. A perfumed thief in boots and breeches, a lady of quality by speech, a daring young miss by dress—better and better.

She batted his hand away but he would have none of that. He caught her chin again and said, “Have you forgotten so soon that I have captured you, my dear? If you do not prove, at the very least, obliging, then I shall have no choice but to deliver you to the constable in Portislow.”

She took hold of his hand and very firmly pressed it away from her face. “I beg you will do so at once, then my good sir.” Her eyes glittered in the moonlight

“You would prefer to hang than to permit me to simply look at you?”

He leaned close to her and moonlight struck his eye. He heard her gasp and he smiled quite fully. He had, for many years, understood his charms and he meant to employ them to advantage now.

Rufus, apparently growing bored, cocked his ears and scarcely a breath later took off suddenly to the left, his nose strafing the rich orchard ground.

“I know who you are,” she said suddenly. “Why, you must be Kelthorne. Of all the odious luck.” Even in the darkness of the night he could see the disgust on her face.

“I am,” he returned, amused that she would express such disapprobation. “Though I cannot see how such a circumstance would offend a lady of your stamp.” He suddenly wondered just what she was doing traipsing about the countryside in boy’s clothing and stealing apples from his orchard. She did not look deprived and in need of sustenance. Here was a mystery that intrigued him even more.

“Oh, la, me lord,” she returned, feigning the coarse accents of a tavern wench. “Oy suppose ye be thinking oy ought to be fully compleemented by yer addresses. Well, ain’t oy the daft un.”

He narrowed his eyes trying to make her out. What game was she at that she would adopt such a wretched accent? But more importantly, why did she seem so disinclined to flirt with him?

A new idea struck, one that made sense. “Are you with the acting troupe that has recently set up camp in my fields?”

She gasped and pressed a hand to the sloppy bow of a very poorly tied neckcloth. “How could you even think such a thing,” she said, now speaking in her proper accents. She now appeared to be outraged.

He narrowed her gaze at her once more. “Because I cannot explain your presence here otherwise.”

“Well, I am not with such a troupe and though I did notice a great deal of tents in your pasture, I supposed that a band of gypsies was taking advantage of you.”

Kelthorne was rarely knocked out of stride, but he still didn’t understand the woman before him. She seemed to be a lady of quality, with some natural acting abilities, but her speech could not more have placed her with the acting troupe than Rufus was a hunting dog. “Then you simply take pleasure in practicing the accents of the lowly born.”

“As it happens, I do. My, er, uncle is quite amused by my efforts to imitate this or that accent”

“Your uncle? You live nearby then?”

“I suppose you will learn the truth regardless, but as it happens, yes, I do.”

He smiled rather slowly. “This is most encouraging. Though I wonder why I have not met you before.”

“My uncle is rather shy of his neighbors. We do not go out in company much.”

“That is a great pity.”

He leaned down to take a kiss, but she recoiled in apparent horror.

“I beg you will let me go, my lord. I. . . am not such a female as you seem to think me to be.”

In his rather vast experience of young ladies, it was a rarity indeed that his lures would be repulsed so firmly and especially not when he made his identity known. The lady, it would seem, was full of surprises. But neither was he in the least discouraged by her repulse. He was fully confident of his powers and decided not to waste another moment.

He took her in his arms abruptly and held her against his chest. “Let me make my intentions plain,” he murmured. “I shall only keep you from the constable by having a kiss from you.”

“A kiss you shall not have,” she said. Much to his surprise, she began to struggle. She was the first woman he had ever known to do so. Even the most properly well-bred young ladies he decided to torment tended to swoon rather than kick up a dust.

She aimed the hard toes of her boots and struck his legs forcefully. He would have been injured had his own boots not offered ample protection. At the same time, she swung her elbows and her arms, twisting back and forth.

He was not impervious to a sharp elbow now and then and he knew he would sport more than one bruise on the morrow for she was rather skilled in her maneuvers. Still, he held her firmly, if loosely, and began matching each of her assaults with subtle shifts of his hands and body. He was well muscled from hunting, boxing, and fencing and quite able to disarm the majority of the mischief she aimed at him. But he had never thought his expertise would have benefited him in such a way.

“Let me go, you horrid rake.”

She was a wild thing in his arms. He could only laugh, which served to increase her wrenching, pulling, and kicking.

He forced her to stop at last by wrapping one leg about both of hers and clamping her so tightly against him that he doubted she could breathe. “A kiss,” he said, “Or I shall never let you go and if you think for a moment to wear me down, let me just say that I took part in a wager once in which I stood on a fence post, on one leg, for two-and-a-half hours. I know how to stay the course. And right now, you are my course.”

At that, she relaxed though breathing hard from her exertions as she stared up at him. Moonlight filtered once more through the apple trees, breached an opening among the leaves, and revealed her features in milky perfection.

He was dumbstruck.

His little thief was an absolute beauty. Her eyes, perhaps dark brown, though he could not be certain in the dim light, were almond-shaped, her brows sculpted in gentle arches that gave her a patrician appearance. Her nose was straight and perfect, her cheekbones high and pronounced in the prettiest manner, her lips full, her chin faintly dimpled.

“Sweet Aphrodite,” he murmured softly. She was perhaps the loveliest female he had ever seen. “I had thought you pretty, but I now see that you are utterly enchanting. Good God! What the devil are you doing out so late at night when any adventurer might have found you?”

“What?” She was obviously stunned, but she had begun to smile. “Do you know what an absurd thing it is you have just said to me, when you, my lord, are the adventurer? Or am I mistaken and ‘tis someone else who is holding me captive and insisting on a kiss before I am to be released?”

“Well,” he said, feeling amused once more, for she was very right, “that is a very different thing entirely for if you do not know already, I promise you that though I am an adventurer, you may trust me.”

She laughed anew.

“Upon my honor,” he continued. “Tis true. You may inquire of my friends and acquaintances and only one answer will return to you—Kelthorne is a man of his word. I do not hesitate to say that there are a hundred more who would have used you very ill in this moment.”

She laughed more heartily still, or at least as well as she was able given how tightly he held her. “Yet, you hold me in your arms quite against my will. Besides, have you not the smallest notion, my lord, as to the wretched extent of your reputation?”

“As to that,” he returned piously. “I have never injured an innocent nor advanced my interest beyond the desires of the lady.” He lifted a brow.

“I hardly know what to say. You seem to abide by your own peculiar code of conduct. And since you are profoundly stronger than I, and I have grown fatigued, there is nothing left, I suppose, but to allow you the kiss you are so insistent upon having.”

“Much better,” he said, feeling very pleased with her acquiescence. He lessened his grip.

“I only beg that you will be quick about the business. My, er, uncle will be missing me sorely.”

Kelthorne glanced about the ground. “Will he be overset that you have failed in your object of collecting my apples for his kitchen?”

“Abominably so. He will probably beat me.”

He laughed. “Yet I do not sense the smallest fear in you on that score. What are you about, miss?”

“If I tell you, will you permit me to depart in peace?”

“Without a kiss?” he asked.

“Aye.”

He shook his head. “I would rather have my kiss than a hundred confessions.”

She sighed heavily. “Then have done with it.” She closed her eyes and tilted her head back so that once more the moonlight grazed her face.

He withheld another surprised gasp for he vowed even in London, whether consorting with the pretty in the drawing rooms of Mayfair or with the petticoat brigade in the East End, he had never seen such a beautiful woman. He wondered precisely how old she was. Glancing at her youthful manner of presenting her lips for kissing, puckered as they were, he rather thought she was quite young as well as lacking in any significant experience, twenty at least, perhaps one or two, but not much more.

Well, after tonight, he hoped she would have a new measure by which to judge all future kisses. He slid his hand behind her neck and leaned very close. Although, if she thought he would kiss a pair of lips that presently resembled a prune, she was greatly mistaken. As he readied himself he could only imagine what her thoughts might be.

*** *** ***

Judith did not comprehend in the least why he did not tend to business. She waited and waited and was about to demand that he take what it was he required, when she suddenly felt an odd whisper of air on her cheek followed by a very tender kiss in the same spot. She ceased pursing her lips and would have inquired what he was doing, but another whisper of air touched her cheek along with another kiss. A shiver raced from her ear down her side and her breath caught again. A series of such airy whispers and kisses followed until it was as though a continuous stream of shivers slid over her neck and side, sometimes even down her right leg.

She began to smile, for the whole experience seemed rather silly and yet exceedingly pleasing. What a strange man Kelthorne was. She wondered if this was how a rogue tended to his victims. She should have objected, but she could not seem to open her throat to begin a protest. When, however, the little puffs of air and small kisses reached her ear, her smiles gave way to a string of gasps. What on earth was the fellow doing?

She lifted her hand and caught his arm awkwardly, trying to fend off this strange new assault but he took her hand in his and held it firmly cradled against his arm. Again, she felt the need to protest, but she found she could not form a single word on her lips. She felt confused, every rational thought obliterated by whispers of air. Really, it was quite extraordinary.

An odd sound trembled in her throat, but still no words emerged to halt the rogue in his progress, for now he was kissing her neck and whispering air over it all at the same time. More shivers, lightning-like this time, raced one after the other down her back.

“Kelthorne,” she finally managed, but so hoarsely she sounded liked a frog. Whatever he was about, he should most definitely cease at once.

Her use of his name had an effect. The whispery air ceased, but without warning his mouth was on hers, very hard and deliberate, so different from all the other migrating kisses. At the same time, he released her hand and she found she was grateful that he was still holding her tightly, now about the waist, for both her arms simply dangled at her sides. Her head drifted backward as if she were floating in a dream and his lips followed. She was as limp as a doll made of knotted rags.

After a very long moment, the kiss ended and he drew back ever so slightly, still holding her fast, one arm still firmly about her waist, the other holding her back. She found she was now staring up between the leaves of the trees. Ethereal clouds drifted beyond the leaves, teasing the moon.

“I believe I should keep you chained to my bed,” she said. She blinked once, then twice. Her head cleared and panic rolled through her. Oh, dearest Lord in heaven. Had she actually spoken these words aloud? She had thought them, of course, but had she indeed let them pass her lips?

His abrupt laughter bespoke the truth and as he drew her toward him so that she was once more upright and looking into his eyes, she felt a hot blush instantly suffuse her entire face. What must he think of her?

“I am so sorry,” she said. “To have said such a thing—! I never meant…that is, I should never think to do anything so…that is, I cannot imagine why I said such a…and of course I do not have any chains at all.”

She gasped anew. She was reminded of digging deep pits, deeper and deeper.

Kelthorne began to laugh, throwing his head back. “What a darling you are,” he said, gathering her up once more. “And I should let you keep me chained to your bed, at least part of each day.” His smile nearly made her swoon. So this was what it was to be seduced by a rogue. How dreadful. How dreadful and how wonderful all at the same time. No wonder innocent maids, if they were not very careful, could be persuaded to relinquish what should only be given in matrimony.

She spoke rapidly. “No, no. Pray forget that I said such a wicked thing. I did not mean to. I spoke my thoughts aloud and never should have done so for I fear I will have given you such notions of me. But I promise you, my lord, I am not such a female.”

“In that I believe you either to be greatly mistaken or you are telling a monstrous whisker. Regardless, you shall not hear a single reproach from me. Your apologies are completely and utterly rejected.”

At that Judith stiffened. She could see that Kelthorne meant to continue as he had begun. She had to bring this unfortunate conversation to an end. “I beg you will release me as you promised. You told me earlier I could trust you. Will you now make a mockery of your honor?”

“Tell me your name first.”

She hesitated, but saw little harm in it. “Judith.”

“Well, Judith, go home to your uncle, only do not imagine for a moment that I shall rest until I have found you again. I fully intend to make you a gift of the chains you say you do not have in your possession.”

“How vile you are,” she said.

He merely laughed in response, but he was as good as his word and finally let her go. Judith turned and hurried away.

“Until we meet again,” he called after her.

She ran into the woods, not looking back as he began calling his dog.

She had not advanced far, however, when she remembered her shawl, her hat, and the apples. She stopped and returned to the edge of the beech wood where she could not be seen. She saw the earl walking his horse slowly in the direction of the town.

“Kelthorne,” she murmured, her fingers touching her lips quite unwittingly.

Rufus bounded along beside the now trotting horse. She remained watching him for several minutes until he disappeared into the lane that led to the castle. She glanced up at the turreted outer wall visible in the moonlight, wondering what it was like to live in such an evocative dwelling.

The castle stood in strong relief, outlined by a bright moon, which now descended over the Bristol Channel not a mile from the vale. The breeze freshened from the west and the smell of the sea was strong in her nostrils. She felt changed and frightened. The awful truth came to her that a rogue had breached the careful order of her world.

Long after he had disappeared, Judith at last ventured slowly back into the orchard. She recovered her hat and shawl but retrieved only two of the apples. One of them she would give to Char1es for she still needed proof that she had accomplished at least a portion of the dare. The other she meant to keep for herself as a memento. The remaining fruit, however, she left in the orchard. She simply could not bring herself to take it.

*** *** ***

Laurence sat on a sofa in the billiard room, squinting his eyes at Kelthorne. “Was she very beautiful,” he asked. His speech was slurred, his eyes red-rimmed and he waved a brandy snifter about as though it were a flag. “And I wish you would stop moving about. You’re making me dizzy.”

Aubrey Watchfield, fourth Earl of Kelthorne, had been standing in one spot the entire time he revealed his most recent encounter with his Judith. He pointed his cue at his friend. “Just how foxed are you?”

“Excessively, but not so very much that I should be disinclined to hear about this apple-lady of yours.”

Kelthorne sighed leaning the cue on the edge of the pool table, preparing for his first shot. “She was exquisite. I have never seen the like in all my days.”

“That is saying something, indeed.” He weaved and squinted his eyes anew.

Laurence Doulting, had been Kelthorne’s closest friend since time out of mind. He was a man of intelligence, a great deal of humor, and in possession of an interesting face. He was broad in the cheek, upon which a few freckles had chosen to make their home, had a somewhat pointed chin, and an excellent smile. He also had a great deal of curly brown hair which, it appeared to Kelthorne, he had been pulling at for his locks looked like a cloud about his head. His shirt points had wilted and his coat had been removed as well as his shoes. The big toe on his left foot stuck out of a hole in his black stocking.

Pulling at his hair again, he asked, “Did you kiss her?”

Kelthorne chuckled and moved about the table in search of a better position from which to break up the neatly grouped balls. “That is none of your concern,” he stated firmly.

“How is this?” his friend inquired, clearly surprised. “You always tell me of your conquests.”

“Well, not on this occasion.”

“That is quite sin…gu..lar,” he said, leaning back and stretching out his legs. “Good God, I must be foxed. Could hardly get that word out. And you. Why must you be moving about in that manner? And why are there two of you?”

“Good God, Laurence, I have only been absent an hour or two. How much brandy have you imbibed since I left?”

Before Laurence could answer, Rufus appeared in the doorway then bounded over to him. Kelthorne rubbed his ears. “Was your trip to the kitchens successful?”

Rufus sat back on his haunches and panted happily, staring up at him in his adoring manner. The presence of his dog put him forcibly in mind of Judith sitting on the ground and rubbing his ears.

Yes, Judith. He liked knowing her name and hearing it in his head. He liked that she had treated Rufus so sweetly when he had so disobligingly knocked her to the ground.

“I have only had a bottle,” Laurence finally responded. “Well, not the entire bottle but a great deal of it. I hope you do not mean to complain. For, if you must know, I find I am quite miserable tonight. Wretchedly so. The lowest wretch on earth.” He sighed heavily and sipped his brandy once more.

Kelthorne patted Rufus on the head and attended once more to the pool table. He bent over slightly, aligned his shot, and scattered the balls. “You do this every summer, you know, despite how attentive I am to you. I had thought we would finally escape your melancholia this year.”

“But you do not understand. You never did. Fanny was my entire world.”

“That was fifteen years ago,” Kelthorne stated reasonably. “You cannot possibly still be in love with her. Besides, she has no doubt given birth to a dozen brats, orders her husband about like a slave, and I am convinced she speaks in a shrill voice even when tending her babes.”

Laurence reclined carefully on the sofa and stared up at the ceiling, balancing the snifter on his chest. “You are probably right and perhaps my love is not so passionate as it once was. I can’t even remember the precise shade of her hair though I believe it was a very light brown, though sometimes blond in the summer months.” His words were still abominably lazy. “But her marriage serves to remind me of my lot, that I am still, and forever shall be, the eldest son of an impoverished vicar—no property, no prospects, no profession, no chance at love. Fanny loved me, but she married the squire’s son. He had prospects.” He frowned. “But the devil of a temper. I have always wondered how my poor Fanny fared.”

“Undoubtedly very well since I am persuaded she is become a fishwife.”

“You are horridly cruel to my memories. I refuse to listen to you anymore.”

“Have you written an ode in her honor yet?”

“No, not yet.”

“How many do you have in your possession now? You must have enough for a volume. Perhaps you should see them published.”

“I do not have sufficient genius to be in print. I have always known it.”

Kelthorne moved around the table, ordering his shots once more. “But I hope you do not mean to despair of love.”

“I have never despaired of love,” Laurence responded. “But I have despaired of marrying for love, or marrying at all. You, on the other hand, will probably be wed before the year is out.”

“So it would seem.”

Kelthorne had known Laurence since schooldays at Eton. He was the eldest of seven children and wholly lacking in ambition. He was a mixture of romanticism and pragmatism and the best friend a fellow could ever have. His sole interest was in the poetry he wrote and since Kelthorne rarely had the privilege of reading Laurence’s scribblings, he had not the smallest notion whether or not he was a man of talent.

Together, they had had many adventures; all of which had come to an end in recent months when the death of Kelthorne’s uncle had forced him to take up his new life as heir to an earldom. Laurence had borne the change nobly, but he did seem more inclined of late to empty whichever bottle happened to be at his elbow. Laurence was not happy.

As Kelthorne slung his cue again and cracked as many billiard balls as he could, he smiled. “You may be easy, you know, since both Radsbury and Newnott are coming with my sister. Radsbury, at the very least, will be content to lose at least a hundred pounds at cards or even hazard. He is equally fond of both.”

“Don’t know what the deuce your sister was thinking in marrying the old goat. Good God, Radsbury must be twenty years her senior.”

“You are too severe,” Aubrey stated. “Rad dotes on Mary. He is a good husband to her.”

Laurence shuddered and his eyelids drooped. “Do you know that his teeth are made of rhinoceros tusk? I can only imagine what it must be like to kiss him. How does Mary bear it?”

“Just as a viscountess should, I imagine.”

“I would never marry to get a handle to my name.”

Kelthorne glanced at him and smiled. He was very foxed, indeed. “No, I do not think you would. Nor do I think you could.”

Laurence turned to squint at him again. “You know very well what I mean. I mean if I were a female.”

“Of course.”

Laurence lifted his brows. “All I know is that Mary was deuced pretty when she was young. Now she has a pinch between her brows which never goes away.”

“She has five daughters,” he said, moving around the table as he spoke, striking ball after ball with his cue. “The eldest thirteen and the youngest nine, all of whom she intends to marry off to wealthy young men. And as for her three sons—and did I tell you she is increasing again—she spends every waking moment cultivating her connections and planning for each of their futures. Stephen will inherit, of course; Marcus is for the church; Sylvester apparently shows all the proper qualities to make a most excellent solicitor though he is but four. And as for this next brat, should the darling prove to be a boy, I would expect him to be born with a sword in his hand.”

“I am grown fatigued from listening to your story. Though I must say it is no wonder she has the look of a merchant on market day. I would advise her to stop kissing Lord Goat.”

“You may tell her yourself when she arrives in a sennight’s time.”

At that, and even in his state of inebriation, Laurence sat up quickly, if unevenly, and just barely kept the snifter from rolling off his chest. “They are coming so soon? When did you learn of it?”

“A few minutes ago. My sister’s letter has been waiting on my bedside table for three days, but I could not bring myself to open it until today.” He sighed heavily. “It would seem my sisters are bringing a young lady who I believe they hope will become my bride, a Miss Currivard, a very great heiress.”

“What the deuce do you need an heiress for?” Laurence said.

“I have no need of an heiress,” he said, working his cue again. “It is as much a mystery to me as to why they have chosen this lady. Except that Amy says she is uncommonly pretty with a profusion of blonde ringlets.” Of the moment, he preferred dark hair, masses of it, but his sisters could know nothing of that since he’d just learned of it himself.

“Sounds like an angel,” Laurence observed.

Kelthorne laughed suddenly as he slung his cue once more. “Then she will hardly do for me.”

“Or for me,” Laurence said, laughing heartily. But not for long. His melancholy descended once more and he said, “So, I suppose you will be married before the winter.”

He sounded so sad that Kelthorne regarded him steadily for a moment. “I suppose I shall,” he muttered.

For several minutes he stood in this manner with his friend, each in a pitiable state and no longer a drop of brandy to be had between them by which to soothe their joint sadness.

“Well,” Kelthorne said at last. “We still have one week and there is some consolation for both of us yet.”

“And what is that?” Laurence asked.

“Have you forgotten the delights to be found in my pasture not a mile away?”

At that Laurence’s red-rimmed eyes brightened. “By God, I did forget, only…”

“What is it now?”

“Aubrey, I dislike to mention it, but I feel I ought to remind you of the awful truth that you quite recently made a vow to mend your ways.”

Kelthorne felt a familiar stubbornness take hold of him. “And so I shall, the moment my sisters and my hopeful bride-to-be darken my doorstep. Until then, my dear friend, I mean to have a little fun.”

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I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into my sweet Regency world!  Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to learn about Valerie King future releases:  CLICK HERE!!!

 

 

 

 

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WICKED AND WONDERFUL: 

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Valerie King has published over fifty Regency novels and novellas, primarily with Kensington Publishing Corp. and in 2005 Romantic Times honored her with a Career Achievement award in Regency Romance.  Currently, she’s working on a Regency Historical, Sweet Regency novellas, and self-publishing her extensive backlist.  She also writes paranormal and contemporary romance as Caris Roane

Valerie is a full-time author, lives in Phoenix, Arizona, enjoys playing solitaire, and has two cats, Sebastien and Gizzy.

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