Read an Excerpt
A Perfect Groom
The atmosphere at White's was not particularly different from any other evening. A number of well-dressed gentlemen circled the hazard table. The air was thick with the pungent smell of brandy and cigars. His long frame stretched out in a green velvet chair, Justin Sterling idly scanned the day's newspaper, as if he hadn't a care in the world -- and indeed he did not. His long legs crossed at the ankle, his pose was one of redolent ease.
"Upon my soul!" intruded a mocking voice. "So you've at last deigned to grace us with your presence again!"
Justin glanced over the top of the paper, his green eyes meeting those of his friend Gideon.
Gideon eyed the empty chair beside him. "May I sit?"
"What, you're asking?" Justin laid aside the newspaper. Gideon was a man known for doing what he pleased, when he pleased, and where he pleased -- a man after Justin's own heart, to be sure.
"Well," Gideon said, "given the beastly frame of mind you were in when you departed the country, I thought I'd better."
It was true. Even his sister-in-law Devon had commented on his wretched mood before he'd left. Why it was so, Justin didn't know. He didn't lack for companionship, neither female nor familial. He had anything he could possibly want at his disposal. Indeed, what more could a man possibly want?
He didn't know. That was the crux of it.
To that end, he'd decided three months earlier that a change of scenery was in order, so he'd removed himself to the Continent. To Paris, Rome, Vienna . . . he'd traveled to his heart's content, indulged himself to his heart's content.
Now he was back.
And he was no more content than before.
Justin reached for his port. "And greetings to you, too," he murmured dryly.
"Oh, all right, then. I daresay, you are looking singularly well." Gideon eyed the perfect fit of snug wool across his shoulders. "Must be your tailor. Weston, I presume?"
Justin inclined his head. Weston was the premier -- and most expensive -- tailor in the city. "You presume correctly."
Nearby came a raucous burst of laughter.
"Two thousand pounds to the man who can take her!"
Justin glanced over just as Sir Ashton Bentley executed a wobbly bow. Justin was not surprised; Bentley's predilection for drink somehow always managed to surpass his tolerance.
"Raise the stakes and make it worthwhile," boomed another fellow.
The voices came from a group of men gathered just a few paces away from White's famous bay window where Beau Brummell and his cronies usually gathered, though they were absent this night. It appeared the discussion was growing quite animated.
There was a loud guffaw. "No one's seen her muff or likely to, lest it be on her wedding night!"
"She'll never consent to a bedding before marriage!" hooted another. "Ask Bentley!"
"Ha! It damn well won't take marriage, or even an offer, to make her mine. She'll be green-gowned by the end of the season or my name isn't Charles Brentwood!"
Another man chortled. "Her? Tumbled on the grass? Not bloody likely."
"Two thousand says I can mow her down!" boasted Patrick McElroy, second son of a Scottish earl. "And her husband, should she ever deign to choose one from the buffoons courting her, will never know he wasn't the first!"
"And just how will we know the deed has been done?" came the inevitable inquiry. "To lay claim to it is one thing, to succeed is quite another."
Indeed, Justin's mind had been pondering that very point.
"He's right," came the shout. "We'll need proof!"
"A trophy!" someone cheered. "We need a trophy!"
"A lock of hair ought to do the trick! There's not a soul in England with hair the color of flame!"
No doubt it was some young debutante who had captured their fancy. Trust the Scotsman McElroy to be vulgar. And Brentwood had no finesse when it came to the fairer sex. Justin almost felt sorry for the poor chit, whoever she was.
Justin's gaze hadn't left the group. "A randy lot, it would seem," he murmured to Gideon. "But I confess to an abounding curiosity. Who is this woman with whom they're so fascinated?"
Gideon offered a mocking smile. "Who else? The Unattainable."
"Not what, but who. You've been gone too long, my friend. Since she turned down three offers of marriage in a fortnight -- Bentley among them -- she's become known as The Unattainable. She's quite famously in vogue, you know. The toast of the Season thus far."
Justin's gaze lifted heavenward. "Just what London needs. Another drab, boring, insipid debutante."
"Not precisely a debutante. She's almost oneand- twenty, though I don't believe she's ever had a formal coming-out. And she's hardly insipid." Gideon erupted into laughter. "Ah, but that is the last word I should use to describe The Unattainable."
"And what word would you use to describe her?"
Justin lifted his glass to his lips, while Gideon pursed his lips. "Hmmm. Do you know, one simply will not do! She's truly quite delectable, but oh, how shall I say this? She is not a woman of convention, yet she's all the rage. She is most certainly never boring, and she's hardly drab. I don't believe I've yet to see her dressed in white. And her hair is indeed the color of flame." He nodded toward the group. "A fitting trophy indeed."
"She hardly sounds the usual diamond of the first water."
"She's not the usual debutante. But perhaps that's the lure. She is a woman of . . . how shall I put this? A woman of statuesque proportions." Gideon gave a dramatic sigh. "She has all the grace of a fish out of water. And she cannot dance to save her soul."
A perfectly arched black brow climbed high. Justin lowered his glass to stare at Gideon incredulously. He pretended a shudder of distaste ...A Perfect Groom. Copyright © by Samantha James. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.