A Proper Affair [NOOK Book]

Overview


A daring lady turns English propriety on its ear in Victoria Malvey's witty and delightful novel of love's surprising twists.

Once a connoisseur of beautiful debutantes, Lord Bryce Keene now has more practical concerns as guardian to his headstrong niece. The girl needs the influence of a true and gentle lady...and so Bryce selects Cassandra Hampsted, known as an expert on the rules of polite society, to offer his hand in marriage. But Bryce ...

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A Proper Affair

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Overview


A daring lady turns English propriety on its ear in Victoria Malvey's witty and delightful novel of love's surprising twists.

Once a connoisseur of beautiful debutantes, Lord Bryce Keene now has more practical concerns as guardian to his headstrong niece. The girl needs the influence of a true and gentle lady...and so Bryce selects Cassandra Hampsted, known as an expert on the rules of polite society, to offer his hand in marriage. But Bryce is about to discover that not all is as it appears.

Since penning an etiquette book for young ladies, Cassandra has learned that happy endings are not guaranteed -- even for those who follow society's rules to perfection. Lord Bryce's offer is enticing indeed, but Cassandra will not risk her heart without concocting fifty-six provisions for marital harmony that Bryce will wish he had read in full! As this strong-willed couple barters and negotiates their way to true happiness, they uncover a blissful union that is far too passionate to be called proper.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743421836
  • Publisher: Pocket Books
  • Publication date: 7/8/2001
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 423,477
  • File size: 345 KB

Meet the Author


Victoria Malvey lives in Clinton, New Jersey, with her husband and two young sons. She is currently working on her next novel for Pocket. Victoria would love to hear from her readers! Be sure to visit her Web site at victoriamalvey.com
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Read an Excerpt


CHAPTER ONE
A true lady never displays her emotions in public.

Quoted from A Lady's Guide to Proper Etiquette,

written by Lady Cassandra Abbott

London, England

May 1836

"That corset needs to be tighter."

Cassandra Abbott felt the muscles between her shoulder blades knot at the sound of her mother's voice.

Lady Darwood swept into the bedchamber, moving to stand in front of her daughter. "If you are going to fit into your gown, Cassandra, you must cooperate, my dear."

"But I am," Cassandra protested lightly, unable to draw a deep breath with the binding garment entrapping her body. "I don't believe the corset can be any tighter."

"Nonsense." Waving two fingers, her mother instructed, "Now exhale deeply."

Ignoring the throbbing in her head, Cassandra obeyed her mother. Tightening her hold upon the bedpost, Cassandra released her breath as the maid cinched the corset in another precious inch.

Lady Darwood nodded in satisfaction. "Perfect!"

Perhaps she looked perfect, but Cassandra seriously doubted she would be able to draw another breath. An inappropriate giggle rose to her lips as she imagined her mother's reaction if she were to fall onto the bed in a dead faint. Still, years of training made her swallow both her laughter and her protest.

Drawing in a shallow breath, she forced a smile onto her face and released her white-knuckled grip on the bedpost.

Lady Darwood reached up to pat her silver-streaked golden curls. "That's better, isn't it?" She smoothed her hands down her own tightly bound waist. "No price is too high for fashion, Cassandra. A lady should always look her best."

Even at the price of breathing? Cassandra wondered, yet she held her tongue. Instead she lifted her arms as the maid draped the gown over her head. "Will Lord Linley be escorting me to the Perths' ball or are we to meet him there?"

"Neither, as His Grace is unable to attend the affair," her mother replied, perching on the edge of a chair.

Stunned at the reply, Cassandra twisted out of the maid's grasp to face her mother. "But our engagement announcement appeared in today's paper, so it is expected that we are seen together this evening."

"Expected perhaps, but not required." Lady Darwood pursed her lips. "I must say, Cassandra, that I detect a note of displeasure in your voice. It is very unappealing."

Displeasure? Lord, if that was all her mother heard in her voice, she'd managed to hide the panic overwhelming her. Ever since her parents had informed her they were accepting Lord Linley's suit, Cassandra had been fighting the urge to scream a refusal. The one meeting she'd had with her affianced, a gentleman old enough to be her grandfather, had terrified her. Pushing away that horrid memory, Cassandra concentrated on her conversation. "Forgive me," she said, hoping her voice didn't sound stilted. "The unexpected news that my affianced will not be attending Lady Perth's ball caught me unawares."

Remaining silent for a moment, her mother stared at her. "Why do I get the feeling that there is something else troubling you?" Finally, Lady Darwood sighed as she rubbed at her forehead. "You're still apprehensive about marriage to Lord Linley, aren't you?"

Cassandra couldn't hold back her reply. "He's so much older than I...and he seldom comes to town. Once we marry I fear I shall be left to molder on his estate...and no one seems to know much about -- "

"That's quite enough, Cassandra!" Her mother rose from the chair. "I understand you have concerns, but you must trust in your father and me." Stepping forward, she lay a hand upon Cassandra's cheek. "When have we ever led you astray?"

"Never," Cassandra conceded, knowing that it was true. All her life she'd followed her parents' advice, believing they knew what was best for her. Indeed, Cassandra knew that accepting the guidance of her parents was the natural order of life...and without order, there is nothing but chaos. Still, a part of her wondered how her parents could possibly be right in this matter. After all, how could she marry a man who repulsed her with his shaking hands, wrinkled skin, and fouled breath? Still, years of good breeding overcame her fears. Surely her parents, who were older and wiser, knew what was best for her....So, being a proper daughter, she must trust in them and believe that their advice would prove sound.

"Then you must trust us in this as well," her mother said softly.

Ignoring the clenching in the pit of her stomach, Cassandra nodded once. "I will, Mother. You know what is best for me."

Satisfied, Lady Darwood gestured toward a box that lay upon Cassandra's dressing table. "His Grace sent over these jewels for you to wear this evening."

Cassandra stood frozen as the maid retrieved the box and opened it for her. Gazing down at the ugly, garish necklace made of thick knots of yellowed diamonds and clunky lumps of gold molded to resemble leaves, Cassandra felt her dread deepen.

Helplessly, she looked at herself in the mirror as the maid settled the weight of Lord Linley's gift around her neck. Her reflection revealed a perfectly gowned, slender young lady with her light brown hair caught up in a classic style...a young lady whose blue eyes were clouded and dull.

"Isn't it lovely?" gushed Lady Darwood, moving to stand behind Cassandra. "You should pen His Grace a note on the morrow to let him know of your pleasure with his gift."

Drawing as deep a breath as her binding corset would allow, Cassandra forced a polite smile onto her face. "Of course I shall," she assured her mother softly.

Praying she wouldn't pass out, Cassandra followed her mother from the room. As she stepped into the drawing room, her father rose to greet them.

"My dears," he said with a wide smile, "how radiant you both look this evening."

The little knot at the base of Cassandra's neck eased as her father wrapped her in an embrace. "You always say that," she teased.

"Only because it is true." Her father squeezed her once more before stepping back. "I consider myself most fortunate to have such a beautiful daughter."

"Your beautiful daughter was expressing concern over our choice of husband," Lady Darwood said as she walked toward the mirror to adjust her necklace. "But she knows she can trust us to do what is best for her."

The warmth in her father's gaze soothed Cassandra's still jittery nerves. "That's my girl," he crooned in a soft voice. "Your mother and I only want to see you happy."

"I know," Cassandra reassured her father as she leaned up to press a kiss onto his cheek.

With a pleased smile, her father offered her his arm. "We should be off to the Perths' affair." As Cassandra tucked her hand into the curve of her father's arm, he patted her fingertips. "Be certain you save me a dance, young lady."

"Of course, Papa," Cassandra replied, feeling lighter than she had in two weeks. "Anything for you."

* * *

"Are you interested in some company, my lord?" Glancing up, Bryce Keene sipped at his brandy as the voluptuous blond strumpet swayed closer to him. Leaning down, she whispered into his ear. "I've heard of your wicked ways."

"Oh, have you now." Wrapping an arm around the strumpet, Bryce pulled her down upon his lap. She was a perfect example of the attractive whores provided by Madam Bouvier in her house of ill repute. "And just what have you heard, my beauty?"

The woman pressed her lush bosom against Bryce's chest. "That the Marquess of Towle knows how to pleasure a woman."

Bryce ran a finger along her creamy flesh. "It is my mission in life to never leave a lady wanting more," he assured the strumpet with a laugh.

She cooed prettily as she shifted even closer. "How about a demonstration, my lord?"

"As much as I would undoubtedly enjoy to do precisely that, I'm afraid I have other obligations that demand my time at this moment."

Her full lips twisted into a pout. "Are you certain you can't spare an hour?" she whispered, tilting her head to lick at his earlobe. "I promise to make it worth your while."

"Of that I have no doubt," he agreed, settling his hands upon her waist. "Perhaps on my next visit I shall have more time to give you proper attention."

"Be certain to ask for Nicole," she said in a disappointed voice. "I'll be looking forward to your call."

Assisting the pretty Nicole to her feet, Bryce patted her backside as she sauntered away.

"I can't believe you passed up that morsel," Jonathan Conner, Earl of Dunham, remarked as he sank into the seat across from Bryce.

"Regretfully," he assured his friend. "Unfortunately, I've other obligations."

"And you are undoubtedly exhausted from your earlier play with those two over there," Jonathan added, gesturing toward two curvaceous brunettes Bryce had bedded earlier in the evening.

"Hmmmm," he murmured with a smile.

"You do seem to prefer those dark beauties."

"Indeed, I do," Bryce agreed, thinking of Francesca, the woman he planned to wed. "They have more fire."

"Especially when you take them on two at a time."

"True enough," Bryce returned readily. "One alone would have drained me, but the two of them together...well, it left me nearly exhausted."

Jonathan snorted derisively. "Not to the point where you would have passed by the lovely Nicole if you weren't so bullheaded in your determination to attend the Perths' horrid ball."

Bryce had to laugh at his friend's astuteness. "Perhaps, but it is a moot point, as my mother specifically requested that I attend Lady Perth's affair this evening. The esteemed hostess is one of my mother's oldest and dearest friends."

"I still say it will be horribly dull," Jonathan remarked as he straightened his cravat.

"No one says that you must attend with me."

Jonathan responded to Bryce's remark with a smile. "That's quite true." His demeanor brightening, Jonathan leaned forward in his chair. "What do you say to meeting at Barrow's Gaming Hell in a few hours?"

Lifting a shoulder, Bryce agreed easily. "I'll probably need something to revive me after the ball and a game of dice just might do the trick."

"I still don't see why you feel compelled to comply with your mother's request." Jonathan chuckled softly. "It's not as if you never disappoint your parents."

"Indeed not," Bryce replied with a bitter laugh. "Disappointing my parents is something at which I excel." Hell, all his life he'd met with nothing but his austere father's disapproval. And his brother, Clayton, was an exact replica of his father...right down to his censure.

So why was he going to Lady Perth's ball? Bryce knew when his mother asked him that she half-expected him to disappoint her, but for some odd reason he didn't want to prove her right. Though he might enjoy annoying his father and brother, making them bluster at his antics, Bryce hated to cause that look of bewildered hurt to settle into his mother's eyes. Lord knew, he caused it to happen often enough, so if he could avoid that look by whiling away an hour of his time at Lady Perth's dull affair, it was well worth the price.

Thrusting to his feet, Bryce straightened his vest. "Since I know my parents expect me not to appear at Lady Perth's, I've decided that I simply must...just to prove them wrong," he remarked broadly, not wishing to expose the real reason behind his desire to attend the ball.

"Who knows? Perhaps you'll give the old boy apoplexy when he returns home."

Bryce snorted with a laugh. "This just might do it."

"Why aren't you dancing, Lord Towle?"

With an easy smile, Bryce bowed to Lady Perth. "I have been waiting for you, my lady," he replied smoothly.

A girlish laugh, more befitting a lady twenty years her junior, escaped his hostess. "My goodness, no one will ever be able to say that the Marquess of Towle is anything less than a perfect...charmer."

"Ah, for a moment I thought perhaps you might refer to me as a perfect gentleman." Bryce pressed a hand against his chest. "Such a blatant falsehood would have stunned me."

Swatting her fan lightly against his arm, Lady Perth chided, "You make light of a most grievous occurrence, my lord. I've often heard your father and even your elder brother bemoan the fact that you pursue...less than desirable pastimes."

"A rake to the core," he admitted with an unabashed grin. "I fear it is to be my fate."

"Than I shall pray for divine intervention, sir, as you are far too entertaining a fellow to spend the rest of your life alone, lost in devilish pursuits."

"Alone?" he queried, lifting his brow.

Flicking open her fan, Lady Perth gazed at him unblinkingly. "Why, of course, my lord, for no proper lady would be interested in accepting an offer from a scoundrel like yourself...even if you are the second son of a duke." She shook her head. "I fear there are far too many suitable lords for a young lady to choose from before any eager mama would cast her eye upon you, Lord Towle."

"Despite my...how did you put it? Ah, yes, my charming manner?" he teased her.

"A dissolute rake may indeed be most charming, my young lord, but if the coffers are strained and the title stained, you shall have a most difficult time convincing a steady-minded lady to marry you."

But he didn't want a steady-minded lady. No, he wanted Francesca, Bryce thought, as he gazed out over the simpering society misses who paled in comparison to his dark beauty.

"You are undoubtedly correct," Bryce murmured in return, knowing that Francesca, with her hot-blooded spirit, would laugh at Lady Perth's assertions.

"You realize I only say these things to you because of my dear friendship with your mother." Snapping her fan shut, Lady Perth leveled a stern look at him. "If she weren't touring the Continent at the moment, I'm quite certain she would be saying these things to you. However, because of her absence, I shall have to stand in her stead."

Lifting his hostess' hand to his lips, Bryce pressed a kiss to the back of her fingers. "Most generous of you, my lady."

"Don't believe for an instant that you will be able to wriggle out of this conversation, my lord," she said in a voice colored with amusement. "I believe that what you need is the support and guidance of a wife."

Grinning down at her, Bryce shook his head. "I fear it is far too late to guide me. Besides, marrying a lady who would harp at me is hardly my desire. I would much rather marry someone for whom I feel a grand passion."

"Passion fades quickly," Lady Perth retorted. "Yet a solid marriage to a well-bred lady remains constant, creating a steady, comfortable life."

Boring year after boring year. Bryce couldn't help but smile over that thought. However, to his hostess, he replied smoothly, "Your argument bears consideration."

With a firm nod, Lady Perth accepted his concession. "Now all we need to do, my lord, is choose a perfect lady for you to court."

Feeling wary, Bryce tried to extricate himself from the conversation. "While I appreciate your offer, my lady, I believe I shall be able to choose -- "

"It is my pleasure to help you," Lady Perth said, cutting off his protest. Rising onto her tiptoes, she began to search the crowded ballroom. "Who would be your match?" she murmured softly.

Praying she didn't find anyone suitable, Bryce found himself remaining by her side, trying to devise a method to escape Lady Perth's unwanted assistance. If only he could explain to his hostess that he was madly in love with Lady Francesca Milford, then none of this polite posturing would be necessary.

But he'd vowed to Francesca that he would keep their engagement a secret until the end of the season. While he didn't understand why her parents insisted upon it, he accepted their request nonetheless. Though he felt a need to blurt out news of their engagement whenever he saw Francesca dancing and flirting with all of the youngbloods who constantly seemed to be surrounding her, Bryce held his tongue, taking comfort in the knowledge that, in the end, she would belong to him.

Suddenly, he became aware of someone tapping him on the shoulder. "Lord Towle?"

Thrusting away his thoughts of Francesca, Bryce redirected his attention onto Lady Perth. "Forgive me, my lady, I was woolgathering."

"So I surmised, since I called to you no less than three times." The tartness in her voice made him smile. Lady Perth sounded just like his mother whenever she was annoyed with him. "We're addressing a most serious issue, my lord, so your utmost attention would be greatly appreciated."

Bryce bowed his head in deference. "While I understand you only wish to help me, perhaps this evening isn't the best time to choose -- "

"Ah, there's a wonderful lady." Lady Perth nodded her head toward the hallway.

Curious, Bryce leaned forward to see who Lady Perth considered his match. He nearly stumbled when he saw none other than the epitome of the perfect Englishwoman.

"Lady Cassandra Abbott?" he rasped, astounded that Lady Perth would ever consider him a good match for such a tight-laced prig.

"Of course. Lady Cassandra would be the perfect choice," Lady Perth returned, her voice filled with conviction.

Regaining his composure, Bryce continued to gaze at Lady Cassandra. "But you have just finished chiding me for my vices, and it is well-known that Lady Cassandra values propriety above all."

"It is for that precise reason I feel she would be a fine wife for you, Lord Towle. A lady such as Cassandra Abbott would encourage you to turn from your vices."

Harping at him until she drove him from his home, Bryce thought with certainty. Instead of trying to dissuade Lady Perth, he offered another possibility. "My preference lays in another direction, my lady."

Curiosity burned in Lady Perth's gaze as she looked up at Bryce. "Really? To whom do you refer?"

"Lady Francesca Milford has captured my eye," he admitted. "With her exotic Spanish looks and bold spirit, I feel she would make an excellent wife."

For a long moment, Lady Perth stood there silently, her eyes wide and her mouth open. Finally, a laugh burst from her. "A fine jest, my lord," she said as she dabbed at the corners of her eyes. "Lady Francesca indeed. Any gentleman unlucky enough to marry that one will have nothing but uncertainty and mayhem in his life."

"You've forgotten to mention excitement," he added.

Slowly, Lady Perth shook her head. "With your youth, I'm quite certain you believe an exciting life is what you seek, but you must trust me in this, my lord -- excitement can be most wearying and, as you age, holds little appeal."

"At two and twenty, I understand what I desire in life, Lady Perth, and I assure you it is not suffering through unceasing lectures on proprieties." Glancing back at Lady Cassandra, he held in a shudder.

"You are quite mistaken if you believe life with Lady Cassandra would be unpleasant." A side of Lady Perth's mouth quirked upward. "She is a charming lady."

"I'm certain she is," Bryce conceded without hesitation. "I never questioned her gentility." Only her lack of spirit, he added to himself.

"I should hope not." Lady Perth's voice rang with indignity. "After all, she's the leading authority on feminine grace."

"Ah, yes, her book." How could he have forgotten? The paragon of virtue had written a tome about the etiquette that should be observed by all young ladies. In other words, a rule book. This time, he couldn't hold back his shudder.

"Lady Cassandra is most accomplished for someone only eight and ten." A sigh escaped his hostess.

With her light brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion, and cool nature, Lady Cassandra was indeed the quintessential Englishwoman. The perfect English rose.

However, he'd always found roses to be dreadfully plain little flowers.

Now his Francesca, with her flashing dark eyes, long black hair, olive skin, and fiery nature, was closer to a lily, exotic and brilliant. Watching Lady Cassandra make her way across the room, he felt a spark of guilt for comparing her so unfavorably to his Francesca.

After all, Lady Cassandra had been raised to believe in the strictures and dictates of a rigid society...and she obviously saw no reason to question the rules. He shouldn't judge her so harshly. Most men, he knew, would find her immensely appealing, but he wasn't one of them.

As she approached their hostess, Lady Cassandra smiled politely. "Good evening, my lady," she murmured smoothly. "I am honored to be your guest."

"Thank you, my dear," replied Lady Perth as she sent a pointed look toward Bryce. "I am so happy you could come."

The vapid niceties quickly bored Bryce. If only Francesca were here....

"Do you know the Marquess of Towle?" Gesturing toward Bryce, Lady Perth stepped back until Lady Cassandra faced him.

"I believe we've been introduced," Lady Cassandra said in her polite little voice. "How do you do, sir?"

"Very well, my lady," he murmured as he accepted her outstretched hand. Bending down to place a kiss upon the kid glove covering her hand, Bryce couldn't resist the urge to bedevil her. Slipping his index finger along her palm, he stroked the bare flesh of her wrist.

A small gasp broke from Lady Cassandra, but she allowed him to finish kissing her hand. He couldn't hold in a smile when he realized she was far too much of a lady to ever create a scene in public. Still, the slight flush on her cheekbones told of her annoyance. Before Bryce could continue to tease her, the string ensemble began to play.

As the strains of a waltz filled the room, Lady Perth clapped her hands together. "My favorite dance," she murmured softly.

Turning toward his hostess, Bryce held out his hand. "I would be pleased if you would honor me, my lady."

Lady Perth clasped his fingers and squeezed once. "You delightful boy," she said with a smile. "I fear I'm far too weary at the moment for such an energetic dance."

The gleam in Lady Perth's eyes made him wary.

"However, I'm certain Lady Cassandra would do you the honor." The expression in Lady Perth's wide eyes was one of innocence as she reached for the younger lady's hand and placed it within his grasp. "Isn't that correct, Lady Cassandra?"

For one moment, Lady Cassandra's polite expression slipped away as she looked at him, revealing her inner thoughts. From that one glance, Bryce knew she'd rather dance with a toad than with him. As quickly as her mask had slipped, Lady Cassandra smoothed out her features. "Unfortunately, I am..."

"...unable to resist such an invitation," Bryce finished for her with what he hoped was a wolfish grin. The devil had prodded him into replying for her. My, my, wouldn't the prim and proper Lady Cassandra Abbott be absolutely scandalized to dance with a disreputable rake!

Like all missish society debutantes, she'd been taught from birth to avoid men like him. Hell, she'd probably been raised to believe a rake would carry her off to slake his lust without so much as a by-your-leave. So, now he was left with only one choice...

...to prove her right.

With a chuckle, Bryce tugged the prim Lady Cassandra Abbott onto the dance floor.

The cad hadn't even waited until she'd refused the dance. No, indeed not. Instead, he'd pulled her onto the dance floor and into his arms as if she were a sack of potatoes to be tossed about at his will. Very well then, Cassandra thought with a sniff, he'd left her no choice; she must suffer his vulgar manner. Still, she vowed she would not stoop to his level; she'd remain the lady.

Her skirts flew out as he twirled her around the room. "Excuse me, my lord, but the waltz is normally done in three-quarter time."

"Perhaps," he replied as he flashed her another of his wicked grins, "but it's far more entertaining when done at a faster pace, don't you agree?"

His blatant disregard for proprieties stunned her. "I most certainly do not."

As he tilted his head to the side, a lock of his thick, sandy blond hair fell across his forehead. Pulling her an inch closer, he grinned wickedly at her. "Come now, Lady Cassandra, doesn't a spirited waltz heat your blood?"

Stumbling at the vulgar remark, Cassandra managed to regain her balance, vowing to suffer silently through the remainder of the dance. She refused to exchange insults with the cur.

After a few moments of silence, Bryce squeezed her hand. "Cat got your tongue?"

Though a retort rose to her lips, she settled for glaring at him.

"Not speaking to me?" He shook his head, making a tsking sound with his tongue. "Poor Lady Cassandra being forced to dance with a cad like me."

Tilting up her chin, she looked away, refusing to give him the satisfaction of an answer.

"Tell me something, my lady," Bryce began, pulling her even closer until her breasts were pressed against his chest in an alarming fashion. "Isn't it rather dull to sit around observing proprieties all day long?"

Struggling to create distance between them, Cassandra hissed, "Release me this instant!"

"Not until you answer my question," he countered with a bedeviling light in his eyes.

"No!"

His fingers began to stroke her back, making her heart race. "No what, Lady Cassandra?"

Willing to do anything to make him cease his torment, Cassandra answered his question. "No, I do not find it dull observing proprieties, my lord, for it is those very same rules that provide structure to our society."

Lord Towle yawned in response.

Anger began to simmer within her. "Think on it, my lord. If everyone were to behave in the outrageous manner you seem to prefer, Lord Towle, our entire civilization would tumble into disarray."

"Ah, but I'd wager there wouldn't be a dull moment in the fall," he retorted with a chuckle.

"It seems the sole purpose of your life is to seek amusement, my lord." She lifted her chin. "However, I leave such foolish pursuits to you, for I prefer following the rules of polite society."

"How utterly dull."

Hearing the pity in Bryce's voice, Cassandra defended her beliefs. "Not dull at all, my lord. I shall marry well, have children, enjoy a life of privilege and social acceptance, then slip quietly into old age with grace." She sighed dramatically. "Poor, pitiful me to wish for such a comfortable existence."

"You forgot to mention that you shall go quietly mad while catering to the whims of society." His fingers tightened upon hers. "Haven't you realized yet how very demanding society can be?"

"I have not found it difficult to meet society's expectations," she returned swiftly. "Perhaps you find society so demanding because people expect you to behave as a gentleman, yet you cling to your ill manners."

"Ill manners?"

"Come now, Lord Towle. You must admit that your manner is most offensive, sir," she replied tartly.

"And your manner, my lady, is most...challenging." His gray eyes sparkled with devilish intent. "You make a man wonder what it would take to unlace your overly tight corset."

She tilted her nose upward. "I assure you, my lord, that you shall never uncover that secret."

"Yet another challenge," he murmured as he tightened his hold upon her waist.

Panic skittered along Cassandra's spine at the maelstrom of emotions that assailed her at the intimate touch. It was most improper for Lord Towle to hold her so close...yet it was also somehow...stimulating. Shamed by her disgraceful thoughts, Cassandra tried to shift away from him. "I did as you asked, my lord. Now I must insist you release me," she murmured, pressing her hand against his shoulder in an attempt to shift away from him. "My affianced would not approve."

"Affianced?" He rolled the word over his tongue. "I had no idea you were engaged to be married. Who is the lucky gent?"

"The gentleman in question is Lord Linley," she replied tartly.

"Linley!" he exploded in astonishment. "Good God, the man's old enough to be your grandfather!"

Though Lord Towle's comment reflected her own misgivings about the match, she nonetheless defended her parents' choice. "He is a duke of the realm and a most suitable match."

"Suitable match? I suppose so, if you don't mind that your groom is too feeble to walk down the aisle without the aid of a cane."

Regardless of the fact that Lord Towle's prediction was quite accurate, it would hardly do to agree with the churl. "It is inappropriate to speak of my intended with such disrespect."

Shaking his head, Lord Towle looked at her with a steady gaze. "I daresay, Lady Cassandra, you demonstrated a shocking lack of respect...for yourself...when you agreed to such a foolish match."

His quiet remark stung her. "You have the nerve to speak to me of respect when it is well-known that you waste your days in...in useless pursuits and spend your money on frivolous...pastimes?" she said coldly. "When you have overcome your own multitude of shortcomings, my lord, then you may speak to me of respect. But until that time, I refuse to listen to any advice you offer."

Lord Towle's serious expression gave way to yet another devilish grin. "Now that wasn't a very polite thing to say, was it, Lady Cassandra?"

For the first time in her life, Cassandra couldn't control the fury that rushed through her. Tearing herself from Lord Towle's grasp, she stood facing him in the midst of the dancing couples. "You, my lord," she began, trembling with anger, "are a despicable cad."

Gasps echoed around the room before the last syllable of Cassandra's pronouncement faded. Ignoring the astonished gazes fixed upon her, she spun on her heel and walked away...leaving the offensive Lord Towle standing in humiliation upon the crowded dance floor.

It was her first public outburst.

And it would be her last, Cassandra vowed, as she left the room. All she needed to do was to avoid the horrid Lord Towle in the future.

Copyright © 2001 by Victoria Malvey

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

A true lady never displays her emotions in public.
Quoted from A Lady's Guide to Proper Etiquette,
written by Lady Cassandra Abbott

London, England
May 1836


"That corset needs to be tighter."

Cassandra Abbott felt the muscles between her shoulder blades knot at the sound of her mother's voice.

Lady Darwood swept into the bedchamber, moving to stand in front of her daughter. "If you are going to fit into your gown, Cassandra, you must cooperate, my dear."

"But I am," Cassandra protested lightly, unable to draw a deep breath with the binding garment entrapping her body. "I don't believe the corset can be any tighter."

"Nonsense." Waving two fingers, her mother instructed, "Now exhale deeply."

Ignoring the throbbing in her head, Cassandra obeyed her mother. Tightening her hold upon the bedpost, Cassandra released her breath as the maid cinched the corset in another precious inch.

Lady Darwood nodded in satisfaction. "Perfect!"

Perhaps she looked perfect, but Cassandra seriously doubted she would be able to draw another breath. An inappropriate giggle rose to her lips as she imagined her mother's reaction if she were to fall onto the bed in a dead faint. Still, years of training made her swallow both her laughter and her protest.

Drawing in a shallow breath, she forced a smile onto her face and released her white-knuckled grip on the bedpost.

Lady Darwood reached up to pat her silver-streaked golden curls. "That's better, isn't it?" She smoothed her hands down her own tightly bound waist. "No price is too high for fashion, Cassandra. A lady should always look her best."

Even at the price of breathing? Cassandra wondered, yet she held her tongue. Instead she lifted her arms as the maid draped the gown over her head. "Will Lord Linley be escorting me to the Perths' ball or are we to meet him there?"

"Neither, as His Grace is unable to attend the affair," her mother replied, perching on the edge of a chair.

Stunned at the reply, Cassandra twisted out of the maid's grasp to face her mother. "But our engagement announcement appeared in today's paper, so it is expected that we are seen together this evening."

"Expected perhaps, but not required." Lady Darwood pursed her lips. "I must say, Cassandra, that I detect a note of displeasure in your voice. It is very unappealing."

Displeasure? Lord, if that was all her mother heard in her voice, she'd managed to hide the panic overwhelming her. Ever since her parents had informed her they were accepting Lord Linley's suit, Cassandra had been fighting the urge to scream a refusal. The one meeting she'd had with her affianced, a gentleman old enough to be her grandfather, had terrified her. Pushing away that horrid memory, Cassandra concentrated on her conversation. "Forgive me," she said, hoping her voice didn't sound stilted. "The unexpected news that my affianced will not be attending Lady Perth's ball caught me unawares."

Remaining silent for a moment, her mother stared at her. "Why do I get the feeling that there is something else troubling you?" Finally, Lady Darwood sighed as she rubbed at her forehead. "You're still apprehensive about marriage to Lord Linley, aren't you?"

Cassandra couldn't hold back her reply. "He's so much older than I...and he seldom comes to town. Once we marry I fear I shall be left to molder on his estate...and no one seems to know much about -- "

"That's quite enough, Cassandra!" Her mother rose from the chair. "I understand you have concerns, but you must trust in your father and me." Stepping forward, she lay a hand upon Cassandra's cheek. "When have we ever led you astray?"

"Never," Cassandra conceded, knowing that it was true. All her life she'd followed her parents' advice, believing they knew what was best for her. Indeed, Cassandra knew that accepting the guidance of her parents was the natural order of life...and without order, there is nothing but chaos. Still, a part of her wondered how her parents could possibly be right in this matter. After all, how could she marry a man who repulsed her with his shaking hands, wrinkled skin, and fouled breath? Still, years of good breeding overcame her fears. Surely her parents, who were older and wiser, knew what was best for her....So, being a proper daughter, she must trust in them and believe that their advice would prove sound.

"Then you must trust us in this as well," her mother said softly.

Ignoring the clenching in the pit of her stomach, Cassandra nodded once. "I will, Mother. You know what is best for me."

Satisfied, Lady Darwood gestured toward a box that lay upon Cassandra's dressing table. "His Grace sent over these jewels for you to wear this evening."

Cassandra stood frozen as the maid retrieved the box and opened it for her. Gazing down at the ugly, garish necklace made of thick knots of yellowed diamonds and clunky lumps of gold molded to resemble leaves, Cassandra felt her dread deepen.

Helplessly, she looked at herself in the mirror as the maid settled the weight of Lord Linley's gift around her neck. Her reflection revealed a perfectly gowned, slender young lady with her light brown hair caught up in a classic style...a young lady whose blue eyes were clouded and dull.

"Isn't it lovely?" gushed Lady Darwood, moving to stand behind Cassandra. "You should pen His Grace a note on the morrow to let him know of your pleasure with his gift."

Drawing as deep a breath as her binding corset would allow, Cassandra forced a polite smile onto her face. "Of course I shall," she assured her mother softly.

Praying she wouldn't pass out, Cassandra followed her mother from the room. As she stepped into the drawing room, her father rose to greet them.

"My dears," he said with a wide smile, "how radiant you both look this evening."

The little knot at the base of Cassandra's neck eased as her father wrapped her in an embrace. "You always say that," she teased.

"Only because it is true." Her father squeezed her once more before stepping back. "I consider myself most fortunate to have such a beautiful daughter."

"Your beautiful daughter was expressing concern over our choice of husband," Lady Darwood said as she walked toward the mirror to adjust her necklace. "But she knows she can trust us to do what is best for her."

The warmth in her father's gaze soothed Cassandra's still jittery nerves. "That's my girl," he crooned in a soft voice. "Your mother and I only want to see you happy."

"I know," Cassandra reassured her father as she leaned up to press a kiss onto his cheek.

With a pleased smile, her father offered her his arm. "We should be off to the Perths' affair." As Cassandra tucked her hand into the curve of her father's arm, he patted her fingertips. "Be certain you save me a dance, young lady."

"Of course, Papa," Cassandra replied, feeling lighter than she had in two weeks. "Anything for you."

*  *  *

"Are you interested in some company, my lord?" Glancing up, Bryce Keene sipped at his brandy as the voluptuous blond strumpet swayed closer to him. Leaning down, she whispered into his ear. "I've heard of your wicked ways."

"Oh, have you now." Wrapping an arm around the strumpet, Bryce pulled her down upon his lap. She was a perfect example of the attractive whores provided by Madam Bouvier in her house of ill repute. "And just what have you heard, my beauty?"

The woman pressed her lush bosom against Bryce's chest. "That the Marquess of Towle knows how to pleasure a woman."

Bryce ran a finger along her creamy flesh. "It is my mission in life to never leave a lady wanting more," he assured the strumpet with a laugh.

She cooed prettily as she shifted even closer. "How about a demonstration, my lord?"

"As much as I would undoubtedly enjoy to do precisely that, I'm afraid I have other obligations that demand my time at this moment."

Her full lips twisted into a pout. "Are you certain you can't spare an hour?" she whispered, tilting her head to lick at his earlobe. "I promise to make it worth your while."

"Of that I have no doubt," he agreed, settling his hands upon her waist. "Perhaps on my next visit I shall have more time to give you proper attention."

"Be certain to ask for Nicole," she said in a disappointed voice. "I'll be looking forward to your call."

Assisting the pretty Nicole to her feet, Bryce patted her backside as she sauntered away.

"I can't believe you passed up that morsel," Jonathan Conner, Earl of Dunham, remarked as he sank into the seat across from Bryce.

"Regretfully," he assured his friend. "Unfortunately, I've other obligations."

"And you are undoubtedly exhausted from your earlier play with those two over there," Jonathan added, gesturing toward two curvaceous brunettes Bryce had bedded earlier in the evening.

"Hmmmm," he murmured with a smile.

"You do seem to prefer those dark beauties."

"Indeed, I do," Bryce agreed, thinking of Francesca, the woman he planned to wed. "They have more fire."

"Especially when you take them on two at a time."

"True enough," Bryce returned readily. "One alone would have drained me, but the two of them together...well, it left me nearly exhausted."

Jonathan snorted derisively. "Not to the point where you would have passed by the lovely Nicole if you weren't so bullheaded in your determination to attend the Perths' horrid ball."

Bryce had to laugh at his friend's astuteness. "Perhaps, but it is a moot point, as my mother specifically requested that I attend Lady Perth's affair this evening. The esteemed hostess is one of my mother's oldest and dearest friends."

"I still say it will be horribly dull," Jonathan remarked as he straightened his cravat.

"No one says that you must attend with me."

Jonathan responded to Bryce's remark with a smile. "That's quite true." His demeanor brightening, Jonathan leaned forward in his chair. "What do you say to meeting at Barrow's Gaming Hell in a few hours?"

Lifting a shoulder, Bryce agreed easily. "I'll probably need something to revive me after the ball and a game of dice just might do the trick."

"I still don't see why you feel compelled to comply with your mother's request." Jonathan chuckled softly. "It's not as if you never disappoint your parents."

"Indeed not," Bryce replied with a bitter laugh. "Disappointing my parents is something at which I excel." Hell, all his life he'd met with nothing but his austere father's disapproval. And his brother, Clayton, was an exact replica of his father...right down to his censure.

So why was he going to Lady Perth's ball? Bryce knew when his mother asked him that she half-expected him to disappoint her, but for some odd reason he didn't want to prove her right. Though he might enjoy annoying his father and brother, making them bluster at his antics, Bryce hated to cause that look of bewildered hurt to settle into his mother's eyes. Lord knew, he caused it to happen often enough, so if he could avoid that look by whiling away an hour of his time at Lady Perth's dull affair, it was well worth the price.

Thrusting to his feet, Bryce straightened his vest. "Since I know my parents expect me not to appear at Lady Perth's, I've decided that I simply must...just to prove them wrong," he remarked broadly, not wishing to expose the real reason behind his desire to attend the ball.

"Who knows? Perhaps you'll give the old boy apoplexy when he returns home."

Bryce snorted with a laugh. "This just might do it."

"Why aren't you dancing, Lord Towle?"

With an easy smile, Bryce bowed to Lady Perth. "I have been waiting for you, my lady," he replied smoothly.

A girlish laugh, more befitting a lady twenty years her junior, escaped his hostess. "My goodness, no one will ever be able to say that the Marquess of Towle is anything less than a perfect...charmer."

"Ah, for a moment I thought perhaps you might refer to me as a perfect gentleman." Bryce pressed a hand against his chest. "Such a blatant falsehood would have stunned me."

Swatting her fan lightly against his arm, Lady Perth chided, "You make light of a most grievous occurrence, my lord. I've often heard your father and even your elder brother bemoan the fact that you pursue...less than desirable pastimes."

"A rake to the core," he admitted with an unabashed grin. "I fear it is to be my fate."

"Than I shall pray for divine intervention, sir, as you are far too entertaining a fellow to spend the rest of your life alone, lost in devilish pursuits."

"Alone?" he queried, lifting his brow.

Flicking open her fan, Lady Perth gazed at him unblinkingly. "Why, of course, my lord, for no proper lady would be interested in accepting an offer from a scoundrel like yourself...even if you are the second son of a duke." She shook her head. "I fear there are far too many suitable lords for a young lady to choose from before any eager mama would cast her eye upon you, Lord Towle."

"Despite my...how did you put it? Ah, yes, my charming manner?" he teased her.

"A dissolute rake may indeed be most charming, my young lord, but if the coffers are strained and the title stained, you shall have a most difficult time convincing a steady-minded lady to marry you."

But he didn't want a steady-minded lady. No, he wanted Francesca, Bryce thought, as he gazed out over the simpering society misses who paled in comparison to his dark beauty.

"You are undoubtedly correct," Bryce murmured in return, knowing that Francesca, with her hot-blooded spirit, would laugh at Lady Perth's assertions.

"You realize I only say these things to you because of my dear friendship with your mother." Snapping her fan shut, Lady Perth leveled a stern look at him. "If she weren't touring the Continent at the moment, I'm quite certain she would be saying these things to you. However, because of her absence, I shall have to stand in her stead."

Lifting his hostess' hand to his lips, Bryce pressed a kiss to the back of her fingers. "Most generous of you, my lady."

"Don't believe for an instant that you will be able to wriggle out of this conversation, my lord," she said in a voice colored with amusement. "I believe that what you need is the support and guidance of a wife."

Grinning down at her, Bryce shook his head. "I fear it is far too late to guide me. Besides, marrying a lady who would harp at me is hardly my desire. I would much rather marry someone for whom I feel a grand passion."

"Passion fades quickly," Lady Perth retorted. "Yet a solid marriage to a well-bred lady remains constant, creating a steady, comfortable life."

Boring year after boring year. Bryce couldn't help but smile over that thought. However, to his hostess, he replied smoothly, "Your argument bears consideration."

With a firm nod, Lady Perth accepted his concession. "Now all we need to do, my lord, is choose a perfect lady for you to court."

Feeling wary, Bryce tried to extricate himself from the conversation. "While I appreciate your offer, my lady, I believe I shall be able to choose -- "

"It is my pleasure to help you," Lady Perth said, cutting off his protest. Rising onto her tiptoes, she began to search the crowded ballroom. "Who would be your match?" she murmured softly.

Praying she didn't find anyone suitable, Bryce found himself remaining by her side, trying to devise a method to escape Lady Perth's unwanted assistance. If only he could explain to his hostess that he was madly in love with Lady Francesca Milford, then none of this polite posturing would be necessary.

But he'd vowed to Francesca that he would keep their engagement a secret until the end of the season. While he didn't understand why her parents insisted upon it, he accepted their request nonetheless. Though he felt a need to blurt out news of their engagement whenever he saw Francesca dancing and flirting with all of the youngbloods who constantly seemed to be surrounding her, Bryce held his tongue, taking comfort in the knowledge that, in the end, she would belong to him.

Suddenly, he became aware of someone tapping him on the shoulder. "Lord Towle?"

Thrusting away his thoughts of Francesca, Bryce redirected his attention onto Lady Perth. "Forgive me, my lady, I was woolgathering."

"So I surmised, since I called to you no less than three times." The tartness in her voice made him smile. Lady Perth sounded just like his mother whenever she was annoyed with him. "We're addressing a most serious issue, my lord, so your utmost attention would be greatly appreciated."

Bryce bowed his head in deference. "While I understand you only wish to help me, perhaps this evening isn't the best time to choose -- "

"Ah, there's a wonderful lady." Lady Perth nodded her head toward the hallway.

Curious, Bryce leaned forward to see who Lady Perth considered his match. He nearly stumbled when he saw none other than the epitome of the perfect Englishwoman.

"Lady Cassandra Abbott?" he rasped, astounded that Lady Perth would ever consider him a good match for such a tight-laced prig.

"Of course. Lady Cassandra would be the perfect choice," Lady Perth returned, her voice filled with conviction.

Regaining his composure, Bryce continued to gaze at Lady Cassandra. "But you have just finished chiding me for my vices, and it is well-known that Lady Cassandra values propriety above all."

"It is for that precise reason I feel she would be a fine wife for you, Lord Towle. A lady such as Cassandra Abbott would encourage you to turn from your vices."

Harping at him until she drove him from his home, Bryce thought with certainty. Instead of trying to dissuade Lady Perth, he offered another possibility. "My preference lays in another direction, my lady."

Curiosity burned in Lady Perth's gaze as she looked up at Bryce. "Really? To whom do you refer?"

"Lady Francesca Milford has captured my eye," he admitted. "With her exotic Spanish looks and bold spirit, I feel she would make an excellent wife."

For a long moment, Lady Perth stood there silently, her eyes wide and her mouth open. Finally, a laugh burst from her. "A fine jest, my lord," she said as she dabbed at the corners of her eyes. "Lady Francesca indeed. Any gentleman unlucky enough to marry that one will have nothing but uncertainty and mayhem in his life."

"You've forgotten to mention excitement," he added.

Slowly, Lady Perth shook her head. "With your youth, I'm quite certain you believe an exciting life is what you seek, but you must trust me in this, my lord -- excitement can be most wearying and, as you age, holds little appeal."

"At two and twenty, I understand what I desire in life, Lady Perth, and I assure you it is not suffering through unceasing lectures on proprieties." Glancing back at Lady Cassandra, he held in a shudder.

"You are quite mistaken if you believe life with Lady Cassandra would be unpleasant." A side of Lady Perth's mouth quirked upward. "She is a charming lady."

"I'm certain she is," Bryce conceded without hesitation. "I never questioned her gentility." Only her lack of spirit, he added to himself.

"I should hope not." Lady Perth's voice rang with indignity. "After all, she's the leading authority on feminine grace."

"Ah, yes, her book." How could he have forgotten? The paragon of virtue had written a tome about the etiquette that should be observed by all young ladies. In other words, a rule book. This time, he couldn't hold back his shudder.

"Lady Cassandra is most accomplished for someone only eight and ten." A sigh escaped his hostess.

With her light brown hair, blue eyes, fair complexion, and cool nature, Lady Cassandra was indeed the quintessential Englishwoman. The perfect English rose.

However, he'd always found roses to be dreadfully plain little flowers.

Now his Francesca, with her flashing dark eyes, long black hair, olive skin, and fiery nature, was closer to a lily, exotic and brilliant. Watching Lady Cassandra make her way across the room, he felt a spark of guilt for comparing her so unfavorably to his Francesca.

After all, Lady Cassandra had been raised to believe in the strictures and dictates of a rigid society...and she obviously saw no reason to question the rules. He shouldn't judge her so harshly. Most men, he knew, would find her immensely appealing, but he wasn't one of them.

As she approached their hostess, Lady Cassandra smiled politely. "Good evening, my lady," she murmured smoothly. "I am honored to be your guest."

"Thank you, my dear," replied Lady Perth as she sent a pointed look toward Bryce. "I am so happy you could come."

The vapid niceties quickly bored Bryce. If only Francesca were here....

"Do you know the Marquess of Towle?" Gesturing toward Bryce, Lady Perth stepped back until Lady Cassandra faced him.

"I believe we've been introduced," Lady Cassandra said in her polite little voice. "How do you do, sir?"

"Very well, my lady," he murmured as he accepted her outstretched hand. Bending down to place a kiss upon the kid glove covering her hand, Bryce couldn't resist the urge to bedevil her. Slipping his index finger along her palm, he stroked the bare flesh of her wrist.

A small gasp broke from Lady Cassandra, but she allowed him to finish kissing her hand. He couldn't hold in a smile when he realized she was far too much of a lady to ever create a scene in public. Still, the slight flush on her cheekbones told of her annoyance. Before Bryce could continue to tease her, the string ensemble began to play.

As the strains of a waltz filled the room, Lady Perth clapped her hands together. "My favorite dance," she murmured softly.

Turning toward his hostess, Bryce held out his hand. "I would be pleased if you would honor me, my lady."

Lady Perth clasped his fingers and squeezed once. "You delightful boy," she said with a smile. "I fear I'm far too weary at the moment for such an energetic dance."

The gleam in Lady Perth's eyes made him wary.

"However, I'm certain Lady Cassandra would do you the honor." The expression in Lady Perth's wide eyes was one of innocence as she reached for the younger lady's hand and placed it within his grasp. "Isn't that correct, Lady Cassandra?"

For one moment, Lady Cassandra's polite expression slipped away as she looked at him, revealing her inner thoughts. From that one glance, Bryce knew she'd rather dance with a toad than with him. As quickly as her mask had slipped, Lady Cassandra smoothed out her features. "Unfortunately, I am..."

"...unable to resist such an invitation," Bryce finished for her with what he hoped was a wolfish grin. The devil had prodded him into replying for her. My, my, wouldn't the prim and proper Lady Cassandra Abbott be absolutely scandalized to dance with a disreputable rake!

Like all missish society debutantes, she'd been taught from birth to avoid men like him. Hell, she'd probably been raised to believe a rake would carry her off to slake his lust without so much as a by-your-leave. So, now he was left with only one choice...

...to prove her right.

With a chuckle, Bryce tugged the prim Lady Cassandra Abbott onto the dance floor.


The cad hadn't even waited until she'd refused the dance. No, indeed not. Instead, he'd pulled her onto the dance floor and into his arms as if she were a sack of potatoes to be tossed about at his will. Very well then, Cassandra thought with a sniff, he'd left her no choice; she must suffer his vulgar manner. Still, she vowed she would not stoop to his level; she'd remain the lady.

Her skirts flew out as he twirled her around the room. "Excuse me, my lord, but the waltz is normally done in three-quarter time."

"Perhaps," he replied as he flashed her another of his wicked grins, "but it's far more entertaining when done at a faster pace, don't you agree?"

His blatant disregard for proprieties stunned her. "I most certainly do not."

As he tilted his head to the side, a lock of his thick, sandy blond hair fell across his forehead. Pulling her an inch closer, he grinned wickedly at her. "Come now, Lady Cassandra, doesn't a spirited waltz heat your blood?"

Stumbling at the vulgar remark, Cassandra managed to regain her balance, vowing to suffer silently through the remainder of the dance. She refused to exchange insults with the cur.

After a few moments of silence, Bryce squeezed her hand. "Cat got your tongue?"

Though a retort rose to her lips, she settled for glaring at him.

"Not speaking to me?" He shook his head, making a tsking sound with his tongue. "Poor Lady Cassandra being forced to dance with a cad like me."

Tilting up her chin, she looked away, refusing to give him the satisfaction of an answer.

"Tell me something, my lady," Bryce began, pulling her even closer until her breasts were pressed against his chest in an alarming fashion. "Isn't it rather dull to sit around observing proprieties all day long?"

Struggling to create distance between them, Cassandra hissed, "Release me this instant!"

"Not until you answer my question," he countered with a bedeviling light in his eyes.

"No!"

His fingers began to stroke her back, making her heart race. "No what, Lady Cassandra?"

Willing to do anything to make him cease his torment, Cassandra answered his question. "No, I do not find it dull observing proprieties, my lord, for it is those very same rules that provide structure to our society."

Lord Towle yawned in response.

Anger began to simmer within her. "Think on it, my lord. If everyone were to behave in the outrageous manner you seem to prefer, Lord Towle, our entire civilization would tumble into disarray."

"Ah, but I'd wager there wouldn't be a dull moment in the fall," he retorted with a chuckle.

"It seems the sole purpose of your life is to seek amusement, my lord." She lifted her chin. "However, I leave such foolish pursuits to you, for I prefer following the rules of polite society."

"How utterly dull."

Hearing the pity in Bryce's voice, Cassandra defended her beliefs. "Not dull at all, my lord. I shall marry well, have children, enjoy a life of privilege and social acceptance, then slip quietly into old age with grace." She sighed dramatically. "Poor, pitiful me to wish for such a comfortable existence."

"You forgot to mention that you shall go quietly mad while catering to the whims of society." His fingers tightened upon hers. "Haven't you realized yet how very demanding society can be?"

"I have not found it difficult to meet society's expectations," she returned swiftly. "Perhaps you find society so demanding because people expect you to behave as a gentleman, yet you cling to your ill manners."

"Ill manners?"

"Come now, Lord Towle. You must admit that your manner is most offensive, sir," she replied tartly.

"And your manner, my lady, is most...challenging." His gray eyes sparkled with devilish intent. "You make a man wonder what it would take to unlace your overly tight corset."

She tilted her nose upward. "I assure you, my lord, that you shall never uncover that secret."

"Yet another challenge," he murmured as he tightened his hold upon her waist.

Panic skittered along Cassandra's spine at the maelstrom of emotions that assailed her at the intimate touch. It was most improper for Lord Towle to hold her so close...yet it was also somehow...stimulating. Shamed by her disgraceful thoughts, Cassandra tried to shift away from him. "I did as you asked, my lord. Now I must insist you release me," she murmured, pressing her hand against his shoulder in an attempt to shift away from him. "My affianced would not approve."

"Affianced?" He rolled the word over his tongue. "I had no idea you were engaged to be married. Who is the lucky gent?"

"The gentleman in question is Lord Linley," she replied tartly.

"Linley!" he exploded in astonishment. "Good God, the man's old enough to be your grandfather!"

Though Lord Towle's comment reflected her own misgivings about the match, she nonetheless defended her parents' choice. "He is a duke of the realm and a most suitable match."

"Suitable match? I suppose so, if you don't mind that your groom is too feeble to walk down the aisle without the aid of a cane."

Regardless of the fact that Lord Towle's prediction was quite accurate, it would hardly do to agree with the churl. "It is inappropriate to speak of my intended with such disrespect."

Shaking his head, Lord Towle looked at her with a steady gaze. "I daresay, Lady Cassandra, you demonstrated a shocking lack of respect...for yourself...when you agreed to such a foolish match."

His quiet remark stung her. "You have the nerve to speak to me of respect when it is well-known that you waste your days in...in useless pursuits and spend your money on frivolous...pastimes?" she said coldly. "When you have overcome your own multitude of shortcomings, my lord, then you may speak to me of respect. But until that time, I refuse to listen to any advice you offer."

Lord Towle's serious expression gave way to yet another devilish grin. "Now that wasn't a very polite thing to say, was it, Lady Cassandra?"

For the first time in her life, Cassandra couldn't control the fury that rushed through her. Tearing herself from Lord Towle's grasp, she stood facing him in the midst of the dancing couples. "You, my lord," she began, trembling with anger, "are a despicable cad."

Gasps echoed around the room before the last syllable of Cassandra's pronouncement faded. Ignoring the astonished gazes fixed upon her, she spun on her heel and walked away...leaving the offensive Lord Towle standing in humiliation upon the crowded dance floor.

It was her first public outburst.

And it would be her last, Cassandra vowed, as she left the room. All she needed to do was to avoid the horrid Lord Towle in the future.

Copyright © 2001 by Victoria Malvey

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2005

    Wonderful!

    This was truly a fantastic book. I had never read a book by this author, so I was a little wary of purchasing it. However, Proper Affair pleasantly exceeded my expectations. I look forward to reading the rest of her novels.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    enjoyable, often amusing Victorian romance

    Over the last few years most of the Ton recognizes Lady Cassandra Abbott as the expert on proper etiquette with published works to support her position. Married to an older person, Cassandra is a paragon that debutantes and other aristocrats can copy. However, in 1843, Cassandra¿s spouse dies, leaving behind financial ruin. Unable to even discuss her monetary woes with her mother because that is incorrect behavior, Cassandra reconsiders her all she believed as true for a proper lady. <P> Bryce Keene needs a female guardian to help him raise his teenage niece. No one is better suited for the job than the nonpareil Cassandra. He offers to pay off her father¿s gambling debts and provide her an allowance if she would agree to a marriage of convenience in which she teaches his niece proper behavior becoming of a lady. Desperate Cassandra accepts, but she has changed her thoughts on propriety so he does not obtain what he expected. Instead, he attains love. <P> PROPER AFFAIR is an enjoyable, often amusing, and early Victorian romance. The lead characters are a strong couple whose sparks light up the story line. When together, the plot is just what sub-genre fans want from their novels. However, the key secondary cast behaves more like spoiled little children detracting from Cassandra and Bryce. Still, Victoria Malvey provides her fans with a fun to read tale due to her stars shining with a strong historical background. <P>Harriet Klausner

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    Posted April 18, 2011

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    Posted April 12, 2012

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