My Favorite Countessby Vanessa Kelly
She is difficult, demanding, and at times, quite fierce. And Dr. John Blackmore can't take his eyes off her. The Countess of Randolph is the most striking woman he has ever seen...and the most infuriating patient he has ever tended.
Mired in responsibility, Bathsheba doesn't have time to convalesce in the country. She should be in London, hunting for a wealthy
She is difficult, demanding, and at times, quite fierce. And Dr. John Blackmore can't take his eyes off her. The Countess of Randolph is the most striking woman he has ever seen...and the most infuriating patient he has ever tended.
Mired in responsibility, Bathsheba doesn't have time to convalesce in the country. She should be in London, hunting for a wealthy new lover to pay off her late husband's vast debts, not dallying with a devastatingly handsome doctor.
But it is only a matter of time until the good doctor and the obstinate countess will have to contend with the sparks that fly between them. And once their bodies surrender, their hearts may follow. . .
Praise for Vanessa Kelly and Sex and the Single Earl
"A sensual treat!" Anna Campbell
"Successfully marrying the tart wit of a traditional Regency romance with the steamy passion of today's Regency historicals isn't easy, but Kelly proves to be more than capable." -Booklist
"Guaranteed to satisfy even the most passionate romance reader." Teresa Medeiros, New York Times bestselling author of The Devil Wears Plaid
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My Favorite Countess
By Vanessa Kelly
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Vanessa Kelly
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCompton Manor, Yorkshire July 1817
It was so much worse than she'd imagined.
Bathsheba Compton, widow of the fifth earl of Randolph, stared in horror at Mr. Oliver as he outlined her dire situation. Ruination loomed, and no matter how hard she taxed her brain she couldn't see a way to avoid it—not without a wrenching sacrifice on her part. The very thought of what that might entail made her stomach twist into knots.
Matthew also stared at his land agent. Not with horror, but with his usual befuddled expression. With his wrinkled brow, balding pate, and droopy eyes, the current Earl of Randolph looked like a basset hound emerging from a sound slumber.
"I say, Oliver," he exclaimed. "You've been droning on about the accounts for the last half hour, and I can hardly make heads or tails of it. What do you mean, bankrupt? I can't be bankrupt. I'm an earl!"
Mr. Oliver cast a long-suffering glance in Bathsheba's direction and tried again.
"I regret to say, my lord," he replied, enunciating very carefully, "that the estate is seriously encumbered with debt and, at this juncture, the small crop yield at the end of the summer will do little to alleviate the problem. Coming on the heels of last year's crop failures, the situation is little short of disastrous."
Bathsheba closed her eyes and held still, hoping the roiling in her stomach would subside before she became physically ill. The day of reckoning had finally arrived, in spite of her desperate efforts to save her family from disgrace.
"Do you mean we're at a standstill?" demanded the earl, finally waking up to the urgency of the situation. "I thought all that retrenching we did last year was supposed to pull us out of dun territory? What was the point of all that cheeseparing if we're still in as bad a shape as we were last year?"
Mr. Oliver's mouth opened just a fraction as he stared at his employer in disbelief. Matthew glared back at him. The beleaguered land agent sighed and pulled one of the leather-bound ledgers from the pile in front of him.
Hunched over the old walnut desk in the library of Compton Manor, Bathsheba and Matthew peered at the account books Mr. Oliver had spread before them. She had grasped the miserable state of their finances instantly. After all, she had kept her father's books for several years preceding his death. Numbers were one of the few things that never lied, especially when recorded by an employee as meticulous and honest as Mr. Oliver.
The land agent flipped through the ledger until he found what he wanted, then shoved the book in front of his employer.
"My lord, you have very little income, and certainly not enough to support two households. The town house in London," he glanced again at Bathsheba, "requires significant upkeep and maintains a full complement of servants. You will recall that you and her ladyship agreed some time ago that it was imperative to keep up appearances in town, so as not to draw attention to the considerable debt left by the previous earl."
Matthew rolled his eyes. "Of course I remember. I'm not an idiot. But we've spent next to nothing these last three years on the improvement of the estate here in Yorkshire. Nothing's been refurbished or replaced. I can't even remember the last time I bought a book."
Mr. Oliver didn't even blink. "My lord, you obtained several rare volumes just last month. I have the bills right here."
Bathsheba snatched the papers from Mr. Oliver, quickly scanning them.
"Oh, Matthew," she groaned. "How could you? You spent over five hundred pounds on books just last month." She riffled through the bills with growing disbelief. "Did you really need another edition of The Canterbury Tales to add to the three you already own?"
The earl's long face drooped with guilt. "I suppose not, Sheba. But it has such magnificent illustrations."
He lurched from his chair to retrieve the text from one of his carefully organized bookshelves. Returning, he cradled the large volume in his arms as tenderly as an infant.
"See?" He pointed out an elaborate and beautifully drawn illustration of the Wife of Bath. "The workmanship is priceless. I've been waiting years for Samuel Thompson to let go of this." His eyes pleaded with her to understand.
Bathsheba had to swallow twice before she could answer. "Yes, dear. It's lovely." But not as lovely as paying off some of their mountain of debt would have been.
He beamed, but his smile faded as he examined her face. He sank into his chair with a sigh.
"Is it really as bad as all that?"
She reached across the desk and took his hand in a comforting grip.
"Matthew, we were forced to retrench last year because all the crops failed after that horrible summer. We hoped the harvest this year would correct the situation but, according to Mr. Oliver's figures, we will not be so fortunate."
Matthew still looked confused. Though the sweetest man she had ever met, he had the worst head for business in Yorkshire. Never expecting to be a lord—after all, everyone had assumed Bathsheba would give her husband an heir—Matthew hadn't trained for it, and still spent most of his time with his nose buried in antiquarian texts. He had always been more than content to leave the business of managing the Yorkshire estate and the town house in London to her.
His face suddenly brightened. "But what about our investments? You've done a bang-up job managing them these last few years. Surely Oliver exaggerates. Why, you're the smartest female I've ever met. You always take care of everything."
Guilt burned through her veins like fire. She hadn't managed things well at all, not since the Earl of Trask abandoned her as his mistress two years ago. That had been the first disaster, and more had piled on ever since.
"I'm afraid there have been problems with our investments," she admitted. "I was forced to fire our man of business just last week. Mr. Gates saw fit to invest the vast majority of our funds in speculative ventures, all of which came to naught. I didn't realize how risky these schemes were until it was too late. We have nothing left. Nothing but debt, and I have only myself to blame."
Disbelief slowly replaced confusion on the earl's kind face. She couldn't look at him, so she pushed out of her chair and began pacing the threadbare carpet. More than anything she wanted to run from the library and from this house full of never-ending responsibilities and bitter memories. She wanted to run all the way to London, never to set foot in Ripon or Yorkshire again.
Mr. Oliver rose from his chair and began stacking the ledgers. When he had completed his task he turned to Bathsheba, watching her with patient sympathy. She and Mr. Oliver had worked together for years. He was one of the few men in her life she had come to respect.
"Will there be anything else, my lady?" She stopped in front of the old chimneypiece, painted with a bucolic but sadly faded scene. She had to resist the temptation to lean against the mantel and burst into tears.
"Thank you, Mr. Oliver," she said, dredging up a smile. "That will be all for now."
Silence fell over the room after he left, and for a moment it seemed imbued with the peace of a warm summer day in the country. She let her gaze drift round the library, her perceptions sharpened to painful acuity by their impending disaster.
The late-afternoon sun streamed in through the mullioned windows, casting gentle beams on the old-fashioned Queen Anne chairs, the venerable but scarred desk, and the cracked leather wingchair stationed in front of the empty grate. To others it might all look old and worn, but the weariness of the room was lightened by bowls of yellow roses on side tables, and by Matthew's collection of antique globes, polished to a high gleam. The servants had to make do with very little, but they were fanatically loyal to the earl and did their best to transform the run-down estate into a home—more of a home than it had ever been during the time she had resided there with her husband, Reggie.
"Sheba, what are we going to do?"
She jerked around. Matthew hadn't moved from behind his desk, paralyzed, no doubt, by her incompetence. But a moment later he leapt to his feet and hurried over to join her.
"Don't look like that, my dear," he said. "You'll think of something—I know you will. You always do."
He gazed at her with perfect confidence, and her heart almost broke under the strain of his trust. Unlike most people she knew, Matthew had never lost faith in her. And he would do anything he could to help her.
She straightened her spine, disgusted by her momentary weakness. Matthew could no more help her than he could help himself. As usual, she was the one who would have to make things right. If that meant giving up her freedom, well, that was infinitely preferable to living in poverty and disgrace.
And there was Rachel to consider. Bathsheba would slit her own wrists before she let anything happen to her sister.
Pinning a confident smile on her face—marriage had taught her never to appear vulnerable—she led Matthew back to his desk.
"I do have a plan, and I must return to London on the morrow to put it into effect."
"Capital! I knew you'd have some trick up your sleeve." He sank into his chair, looking enormously relieved.
That made her laugh, but even to her own ears it sounded bitter.
"Hardly a trick. I see only one way out of this mess, and that's for me to find a rich husband. I'll demand—and get—a very large settlement. That way I can help you alleviate your debt, and you'll be able to rent the town house in Berkeley Square once I move out."
Her heart contracted painfully at the thought of leaving her elegant mansion, but Matthew had let her live there on sufferance. After Reggie died, the new earl would have been well within his rights to ask the widow Randolph to vacate the premises.
Matthew stared at her as if she'd lost her wits. "No, Bathsheba. I won't hear of it.You don't want to marry again—you vowed you wouldn't after—after—that is to say ..." His words died away as he fiddled with a lump of sealing wax.
"After Lord Trask abandoned me to marry Sophie Stanton? Go ahead, Matthew. You can say it."
His soft brown eyes filled with sympathy, but he remained silent. She sighed and lowered herself into the wingchair, ignoring the crackle of ancient leather.
Her skin still crawled whenever she thought of those terrible weeks in Bath almost two years ago. Trying to come between Simon and Sophie—to wreck their engagement—had been a cruel and wrenching task. But she'd had little choice. Simon was one of the richest men in England, and if he had married her, all her money problems would have vanished like smoke. But after that episode she had lost her appetite for husband-hunting and had vowed to rescue the Randolph finances on her own. Instead, she had seen their investments—not very healthy in the first place—vanish under the weight of her own carelessness and a hired man's greed.
Matthew stirred, interrupting her gloomy ruminations.
"You don't have to marry just anyone," he said. "You could marry me."
His abrupt offer startled a laugh out of her. "My dear, please don't be ridiculous."
"I'm serious," he said stoutly. "I'm very fond of you. Always have been. And you're a beautiful, intelligent woman. Never thought that bastard cousin of mine deserved you. I understand your worth, Bathsheba, and I would never betray you. Only say the word and I'm yours." He finished his unexpected proposal with a shy, earnest smile.
Bathsheba's eyes stung. Lord, she hadn't felt so much like crying since her father died.
"Matthew, you're a dear man and I'm very fond of you, but we wouldn't suit. Besides, that would hardly solve our problem."
"But if we married we could consolidate households. Sell that bloody great barn in London and retrench here in the country."
Anything but that. She would throw herself into the Serpentine before she moved back to Yorkshire.
"Darling, you know I would go mad if I had to live here all year 'round. And I would make your life a misery. My mind is made up. I'll return to London right away and begin looking for a husband in earnest."
She smiled at him, seeking to ease his anxiety. "I'm not completely without resources. I don't think I'll have too much difficulty finding someone who will suit. He simply needs to be very wealthy, and to bother me as little as possible."
Matthew bristled. "Of course you won't have any trouble. Never meant to suggest otherwise. Just snap your fingers and every man in London will be falling all over you."
"Yes," she replied sarcastically. "But this time I have to persuade one of them to actually marry me."
He shushed her and rearranged the papers on his desk, but Bathsheba couldn't fail to notice his relief that she had rejected his proposal. No wonder she had turned so cynical. Men didn't want to marry her. They only wanted to bed her. Well, at least she could acquit Matthew of that charge. He didn't even want that.
"Bathsheba, what are you going to do about Rachel?"
Her heart jolted with a hard, extra beat. Why did Matthew have to bring her sister up now? Didn't they have enough to worry about? "I'm not going to do anything about Rachel. She's fine just where she is."
He fiddled with his papers some more. "I was thinking we could bring her here—to Compton Manor. I could look out for her, and I've more than enough servants to tend to her needs. That, at least, would relieve you of the expense of her upkeep."
She stared at him, stunned by the suggestion, fighting back incipient panic. To the world, her sister had died long ago. The scandal of her reappearance would surely doom Bathsheba's chances of securing a rich husband.
"Absolutely not." Her voice came out sharp as a blade. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Thank you for the offer, but Rachel is happy where she is. The Wilsons love her and would be very sorry to lose her."
That much, at least, was true. On her visits to Rachel, it was obvious to Bathsheba that her sister was happy, and that her caretakers were genuinely fond of her. No matter how much it cost—and it cost a great deal—she must keep Rachel safely hidden away in the countryside. A rich husband could help her do just that.
The earl gave her countenance a thorough inspection. She calmly met his gaze, refusing to squirm or show any discomfort.
"Don't you think it's time for another physician to examine her?" he asked abruptly. "Perhaps something could be done for her."
She took a moment to quell the stab of anger and guilt that pierced her. "There's nothing that can be done to help. She's like a child, Matthew. The fever robbed her of both her speech and her wits. Rachel will never recover, and no one will understand why my father insisted we hide her away, or why I maintained the fiction of her death after Papa died."
Because you were a coward. The words whispered through her brain, but she ruthlessly beat them back. She might have been a coward, but Reggie had left her no choice.
She leaned forward in her chair and glared at him. "Leave it alone, Matthew. I mean it."
As always, he crumbled before her will. "Well, she's your sister," he conceded. "I just wanted to help."
"Thank you, but she's my responsibility, not yours." She knew she sounded heartless, but Matthew's sentimentality—and naiveté—tried her patience. She was too weary and discouraged to pretend otherwise.
Bathsheba rose, smoothing down the silk of her skirts, taking comfort, as always, in the slippery, rich feel of the material draping her body.
"If you'll excuse me, I must speak to my abigail. We leave for London first thing in the morning." Now that her mind had been made up, she couldn't wait to shake the dirt of Yorkshire from her slippers and return to the city. Where she belonged.
Matthew rose, too, but suddenly looked as if someone had stuck a burr down the front of his breeches.
Excerpted from My Favorite Countess by Vanessa Kelly Copyright © 2011 by Vanessa Kelly. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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This is my first Vanessa Kelly book, and it certainly won't be the last. This is not your traditional, predictable historical romance with balls and teas and carriage rides. This is gritty, real life and features two characters I would never have expected in a story with a Countess on the cover. The heroine is a widow who, at first blush, is extremely unlikeable. She's arrogant, sharp-tongued, and rude. The only reason the ton puts up with her is because she's so beautiful and because of her title. Kelly does an incredible job of redeeming this character in a realistic way. The character stays true to herself throughout the novel. She doesn't do a one-hundred-eighty degree shift and completely change. Instead, she gradually grows and changes because of the experiences she endures. She learns to care about others, and the reader learns to care about her, and to understand what made her the woman she became. She is a deeply flawed character. I love that the author doesn't try to totally redeem the heroine and make her turn out to be perfect. She remains a flawed character throughout, but what she goes through does change her and make her a better person, flaws and all. The hero isn't an Earl or a Duke. He doesn't even have a title. He's a doctor, in today's terms, an obstetrician. Kelly takes us into the gritty world of the very poor, showing us their very real plight through the eyes of a man who cares deeply for the people he treats. He risks his life and his reputation to save society's throwaways. It is precisely his gift as a doctor, his ability to read people's expressions and body language to understand and diagnose them, that enables him to see past the aloof, arrogant exterior of the heroine. He is the only person who sees the scared, vulnerable woman beneath the shell. He is the perfect match for the heroine, in every way. The love story between these two complex characters is incredibly emotional and riveting. There are so many layers to these characters and they are so compelling that I still can't stop thinking about them even after finishing the novel. In spite of all the baggage and secrets both characters have, the resolution of the conflict does not rely on any gimmicks or frustrating misunderstandings. The author resolves each conflict realistically, using the hero's keen sense of understanding of human nature to help him see the truth, rather than let silly assumptions stand in the way between the characters. If you enjoy deep, emotional, complex characters and an original plot with two unusual characters, you will love My Favorite Countess. This is one of the best historical romances I have ever read.
Vanessa Kelly writes with style and grace. My Favorite Countess is a story of needing one thing and wanting another. Bathsheba believes that she must marry for money to take care of all the debts her deceased husband left but falls for Dr. John Blackmore who is comfortable but not rich. Dr. Blackmore is on a mission to save as many patients, poor or otherwise, as he can to atone for his sister's death. Dr. Blackmore falls for Bathsheba but because of his mission he puts her life in danger. Love wins in the end when they both realize what is more important. This is an awesome book that I highly recommend.
I really and truly highly recommend this book. Vanessa is really a fantastic writer. My Favorite Countess will draw you in from the beginning, so much so that you won't want to put it down. And, the sex scenes are absolutely RED HOT!!! This book will appeal to all readers that love Historical Romance. In 1817, Widow Bathsheba Compton cannot enjoy her new marital status as she cannot pay her abusive late husband's major debt, nor pay for the care of her mentally disturbed sister who she never sees. The aristocrat knows her only hope to pay the bills rests with marrying a wealthly noble. She is difficult, demanding, and at times, quite fierce. And Dr. John Blackmore can't take his eyes off her. The Countess of Randolph is the most striking woman he has ever seen...and the most infuriating patient he has ever tended. Mired in responsibility, Bathsheba doesn't have time to convalesce in the country. She should be in London, hunting for a wealthy new lover to pay off her late husband's vast debts, not dallying with a devastatingly handsome doctor. But it is only a matter of time until the good doctor and the obstinate countess will have to contend with the sparks that fly between them. And once their bodies surrender, their hearts may follow. . . My Favorite Countess
My Favorite Countess explains in a delightfully awesome manner why a woman from a previous story was such an unbearable and nasty harridan and how she ends up deserving the love and acceptance she gets in this book. Once I realized who this book was about I was all excited with anticipation and the author met every one of my hopes as the plot unfolded. Lady Randolph, Bathsheba, truly earned the title of heroine. She's a woman of her time who has been dealt with an overabundance of bad luck, sadness and victimization. As a woman with a noble title she's not expected to have to worry about much and it's acceptable for her to grace the parties and the dress makers in fashion and with attitude. All of it is a front. What a reader will find out is that Bathsheba is a woman driven to desperation and she will do anything she has to in order to protect her family. She has tried it in the past and fortunately failed. She can't fail in this book and a reader comes to understand how much is riding on the success of her personal sacrifices. A reader feels her wounds, her worry and her crushing fears of failure. She's a truly tortured heroine and it's going to take a special kind of man, a genteel warrior, to reach her heart and the terrified woman hiding within. Enter Dr. John Blackmore. He needs more patience than patients. I couldn't resist saying that. But it's also very true. Bathsheba has the poor guy dancing down an emotion-filled path filled with thorns, potholes and honeyed candy. He's a smart, educated and intelligent man who would do Sir Sherlock Holmes proud. He watches, observes and sees what everyone else has failed to see and benefits from the insight he gains. He applies it to his practice with the poor and he applies it to the heroine. She is as injured as some of his patients to be sure and I really enjoyed watching the hero peel back Bathsheba's defensive layers to find the jewel within. He is as methodical as a surgeon -- focused and intent. I loved his steady strength, his sense of humor and his finesse. He's not perfect and I liked that too. Readers will find out that he has his own burden, his own fear that dogs his path and colors many of his decisions. It will take a very scary and dramatic confrontation to bring it all to the fore. The conflict in this story is complicated and delightfully meaty which kept me turning the pages at a swift clip. I never could second guess the hero or heroine because they never did quite what I expected. It kept me off kilter but I'm glad to say they did that to each other too. That was fun. There were a few elements of external conflict that really showcased the strength of character and personality of both the hero and heroine. I also thought it made them grow into better people as the story continued. It wasn't an easy growth nor was it without pain. Those make for the best reading and Ms. Kelly delivers. When John and Bathsheba succumb to the passion that burns inside them for each other, the pages turn smoking hot. I simply have to say that playing doctor was never so much fun especially when the guy is a real doctor. I found that I fanned myself from frequently heated cheeks because the scenes were so well written, I could visualize them. Thank goodness it's winter right now. Read the full review at the Long and Short of It Romance Reviews
In 1817 Widow Bathsheba Compton cannot enjoy her new marital status as she cannot pay her abusive late husband's major debt nor pay for the care her mentally disturbed sister who she never sees. The aristocrat knows her only hope to pay the bills rests with marrying a wealth noble. At a dinner party Lady Bathsheba and Dr. John Blackmore meet and are attracted to one another. She tries to ignore her suddenly awakened libido as he is not what she needs as a mate. He agrees with her assessment as he does not want Lady Shrew for a spouse. However, when she becomes deathly ill, John saves her life. As his patient heals under his care, he discovers she uses her shrewish personality to disguise her intelligence. They begin a tryst, but she rejects his proposal because she fears he will be hurt with his compassion to help poor people in dangerous neighborhoods and besides she needs a pliable wealthy social climber. Continuing the community activism of Sex and the Single Earl, My Favorite Countess is a wonderful regency romance starring two intriguing lead characters whose passion for one another make for an engaging read. Fast-paced, Blackmore and Compton have ghosts that haunt each and lead to their current behavior of his recklessness and her need for money. Harriet Klausner