The Very Comely Countess

( 1 )


When the Duchess of Harborough offers Harriet Treene a chance to model for one of her alluring paintings, Harriet accepts. Beautiful, witty, and bold, Harriet is a lowborn orange-seller in St. James Park. Can this diamond-in-the-rough be polished enough to find a place in the genteel ton — and in the heart of London's most enigmatic rake?

Devilishly irresistible William Manderville, Earl of Bonnington, refuses to take a wife because the covert risks he takes for the sake of his...

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When the Duchess of Harborough offers Harriet Treene a chance to model for one of her alluring paintings, Harriet accepts. Beautiful, witty, and bold, Harriet is a lowborn orange-seller in St. James Park. Can this diamond-in-the-rough be polished enough to find a place in the genteel ton — and in the heart of London's most enigmatic rake?

Devilishly irresistible William Manderville, Earl of Bonnington, refuses to take a wife because the covert risks he takes for the sake of his country put him in constant danger. A painting by his friend the duchess — of a woman who looks like the goddess Venus — could change his mind, however. As the duchess plays matchmaker between the enamored earl and the mysterious beauty, William finds himself caught up in a maelstrom of powerful emotions and desires he has never felt before. But can he finally take the risk of loving a woman when his love of danger and excitement will put her in harm's way?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743417938
  • Publisher: Pocket Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2001
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.78 (w) x 4.28 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter One
May, 1799

The Duke of Harborough's carriage lurched to a rumbling start, or at least as much of a start as any vehicle could make for itself so close to Whitehall in the middle of the day. The iron-bound wheels scraped over the cobblestones and the springs sawed back and forth with a queasy rhythm as the driver tried to make his way through the carts and chaises and wagons, porters and sailors and apprentices and idlers that always crowded the streets near the Thames. The sun was too bright and the river too rank, and, with a groan, William, the present Earl of Bonnington, sank back against the leather squabs and pulled his hat lower over his eyes, trying to keep out every last ray of the infernal sunshine that was making his head ache even more.

"Will you tell me now what ails you, Will?" asked Edward, the seventh Duke of Harborough, Earl of Heythrop, Baron Tyne, and a gentleman who, unlike William, never shied from the midday sun. "Aside from your usual depravities, that is."

"I would not dream of keeping anything a secret from you, you insufferably cheerful bastard," said William, without raising his hat from his eyes. "What ails me is simple, and not in the least depraved. I am in great need of a new woman."

Edward chuckled, more amused than a true friend had any right to be. "Having finally wearied of Emily, you are in the market for her replacement?"

"I did not 'weary' of Emily," said William. Emily had been his last mistress, a luscious little dancer he'd set up in keeping for nearly two years, until her avarice had finally counterbalanced her uninhibited imagination and abilities, and with a parting gift of rubies, William sent her on to an older marquis. "One was wearied by Emily, but never of her. It is Jenny I must replace."

"Ah." Instantly Edward sobered. "Jenny."

"Yes, Jenny." William pushed his hat back from his face; there'd be no hiding in any discussion of Jenny Colton. "Have you any notion of how close she came to getting us both captured?"

Uneasily Edward nodded. Jenny had been his idea, and now she'd be his fault as well. "I'd some idea of the problems, aye. Your report made it clear enough that the arrangements had not gone, ah, exactly as planned."

"'Exactly,' hell," said William with disgust. He hadn't wanted to mention this in the Admiralty Office, not knowing who might be listening even there, but here now in Edward's carriage he had no such qualms. "She decided she was far too intelligent to follow orders, and began plotting and playing games she'd no notion how to finish. Thanks to her, we weren't alone on that beach, and we left at least three French soldiers dead on the sand to prove it. If the fog hadn't been thick when we cleared the harbor, then the coasters would have swept us up for certain."

There wasn't much cheerfulness to be found in Edward's face now. "Where is Jenny at present?"

"Back in the theater at Brighton," said William, "where I fervently hope she remains for the rest of her mortal days, or at least for mine. I've no great desire to be shot dead on a foreign beach, or to explore French republicanism through the wonders of the guillotine on account of some third-rate actress."

He could make light of it now, but the Fancy had barely slipped beneath the French guns to the open sea. It had been close, damned close. No wonder his head ached just from remembering.

Edward frowned, restlessly tapping his fingers on his knee. When he'd given up active duty to assume his title, he'd also given up wearing his gold-laced captain's uniform except for dress, but the years he'd spent in the Navy still showed as much in the formal, straight-backed way he carried himself as it did in his sun-browned, weatherbeaten face. He didn't look like any of his fellow peers in the House of Lords, and his experience was beyond theirs, too, having served with honor at the Battle of the Nile with Admiral Lord Nelson.

"I am sorry, William," said his friend now. "I thought you'd find Jenny amusing. I thought she'd be to your, ah, taste."

William allowed himself a small, exasperated grumble. It was bad enough that the scandal sheets breathlessly painted him as a sinfully charming rakehell, a carefree despoiler of maidens and defiler of wives. It simply wasn't true. Not entirely, anyway. He was very fond of women, and women in turn were very fond of him, and he'd never seen the wickedness in obliging their fondness, or letting them oblige his. But to have Edward believing these exaggerations and treating him as if he were no better than a stallion in perpetual rut — well, enough was enough.

"I am not insatiable, Edward," he said testily. "And I do not regard these runs across the Channel as pleasure jaunts filled with drinking and whoring. I know that is precisely what we wish the French to believe, but if I begin to believe it, too, then I'm as good as dead. Hell, if you chose Jenny only to warm my — "

"She came highly recommended," said Edward defensively. "For her reticence, that is. Not her other, ah, talents."

"Oh, no, of course not," said William with a certain resignation as he settled back against the cushions, arms folded over his chest. "Spoken like the old married man you are. You're so blessed content with your new little wife that you can't bear to think of us wicked old bachelors behaving decently at all."

"My contentment has nothing to do with this." Irritably Edward tugged at one white linen cuff. "You know damned well I'd never willingly put you at risk, not after you've already done so much for the Admiralty and the country as well."

"I know, Ned. But do recall that you're the great hero, not I." William sighed. No one who knew them both would ever make such a mistake, which was exactly why he had been so successful with his missions. Who would believe anything so patriotic, so selfless, of the Earl of Bonnington? "I am simply tired and cross, and I want nothing more than a drink to settle my temper. But I do believe I shall choose the next hussy myself."

"I wouldn't wish it otherwise," said Edward, grumbling but still clearly relieved that William wasn't going to raise more of a row about Jenny than he had. Not that William would. He and Edward had known one another since they were boys running wild together through the Sussex countryside, nearly twenty-five years ago now. While their lives since then had taken very different turns, that bond would always be there between them, and was certainly not worth straining for the sake of a self-centered chit like Jenny Colton.

"And no more actresses, Ned," warned William. "They're too damned caught up in preening over their own beauty to be trusted. You cannot imagine the strain of being penned up in the Fancy's cabin with Jenny Colton for a fortnight of dirty weather."

Edward nodded. "But a woman won't be much use to you as a distraction if she's not beautiful."

"A different kind of beauty, then. More subtle. More like a true lady." William sighed again, rubbing the back of his neck. He'd shaved and washed and changed his clothes before he'd called upon Edward, but he still felt gritty and edgy from lack of sleep. "A lady who'll understand that there are perhaps times when she would do well to be quiet and listen."

Edward snorted. "The woman will be posing as your mistress, Will, not your wife. Though to hear you, perhaps that's what you're finally searching for, eh? A lovely demise to your overrated bachelorhood?"

"Oh, hardly." William grimaced. Ever since Edward had fallen in love and married last year, he'd become the most earnest of matchmakers. It wasn't that William had any real argument against marrying — his own parents had been happy enough models for him — but he simply couldn't see any reason for it, either, not just yet. Eventually, when the time was right to sire an heir, he'd have to find himself some well-bred young lady to carry the family name, but not in the immediate future.

"All I wish for now is a replacement for Jenny," he declared, "a sweet-tempered little hussy with a strong enough stomach for the sea, one who will take orders like a soldier and be willing to risk her pretty neck for the sake of her king and country. I'll know the woman when I find her, Ned. Perhaps she'll even find me first."

Edward groaned, reaching for his hat from the seat behind him. "Oh, aye, most likely she will. They always do with you, don't they? But at least she'll have two months or so to chase you down."

"Two months?" repeated William with surprise. "I thought I'd head out again Monday, to finish — "

"Two months," said Edward firmly. "Maybe longer. After this last adventure, I think it best to let the French forget about you for a bit. Ah, here we are, home at last."

Harborough House had been built by Edward's grandfather, in a time when all the grandest houses were made to rival, and sometimes outdo, the royal palaces themselves. Though its location overlooking the long sweep of Green Park was no longer quite as fashionable as it had been in the old king's time, the house itself remained one of the most imposing in London. Outwardly it was also one of the most grim, built of gray stone made gloomier still by the city's constant rain of soot. A row of tall columns ran along the façade above a rusticated ground floor, and a pediment along the roof was meant to suggest a classical temple, complete with life-size statues of goddesses aloofly surveying whichever lowly mortals were arriving in the courtyard below.

But while the exterior of the house remained stark and severe, the inside had blossomed under the fresh touch of Edward's wife, a lady famous for her great artistic gifts. Remembering the warm, sunny houses of her native Naples, Her Grace had replaced the dark, heavy furniture with light woods and airy designs, ordered the walls painted shockingly new colors of rosy pink, golden yellow, and cerulean blue, and made sure that, whatever the season, the rooms were filled with flowers brought fresh from the country.

She'd transformed the house into a place that fashionable London loved to visit, and William was no exception. The hall was cool and inviting after the noisy, dusty streets, the mingled scents of the lilacs, snapdragons, and honeysuckle arranged in two tall marble urns a fragrant welcome. While Edward quickly sifted through the small pile of letters and cards presented by a footman, William's gaze rose to the painting hung in a place of honor and attention between the twin staircases.

It was, of course, painted by the duchess herself, for she always placed her newest work there for her guests' amusement, admiration, and criticism. The paintings changed often, for Her Grace was prolific as well as talented, but in all his visits to Harborough House, William had never been struck so instantly, or so intensely, by a picture as he was by this one.

The subject was simple enough, a beautiful young woman painted as the pagan goddess Venus, seated on a bench with her hands resting loosely in her lap. Her round cheeks were deliciously rosy, almost flushed, and wisps of her auburn hair had escaped from the ribbon around her head to curl around her face and neck. Her gaze wasn't directed at the viewer, but at something beyond, the unguarded expression in her wide, gray-blue eyes so rapt and joyful that William nearly turned to look behind him.

"So you like my new picture, Bonnington?" asked the duchess, suddenly there at his side. At once William turned to bow and kiss the back of her offered hand, a hand still daubed with some most unducal paint smears. "It pleases you?"

If Edward was an unusual duke, then his wife was a thoroughly unusual duchess, not the least because she'd hurried to greet her husband here in the hall instead of waiting to receive him in her own rooms. She'd obviously come directly from her painting studio, too, for she wore a paint-stained striped half-gown over a full-sleeved white chemise, her dark hair tied back in a kerchief and gold hoops swinging from her ears, more like a gypsy than a peeress.

"This new picture does please me, Francesca," said William, his gaze already wandering back to the painting, "so much so that I'm neglecting you entirely."

"William is feeling churlish, my dear," said Edward, looping his arm fondly around his wife's waist as he bent to kiss her. "He even admits it. He is tired, and ill-tempered, and thirsty, and therefore cannot be responsible for his behavior."

But William was too engrossed in the picture to rise to Edward's challenge, too lost in the image of the rosy-cheeked young woman.

"She's the one, Edward," he said softly. "Mind how I told you before I'd know the next girl when I saw her. This is the one, in this painting. This is the girl."

"What girl?" asked Francesca, her dark eyes lighting with curiosity. "Whatever are you saying? Ah, my dear friend! You sound at last like a gentleman ready to fall in love and marry!"

"Perhaps I am, if I could only find this fair goddess of yours," said William, trying to make a jest from his inadvertent confession while Edward glared at him over Francesca's shoulder. The duke and duchess were closer than most married couples, but there was still a good deal about Edward's more dangerous activities in the Admiralty that he would rather his wife didn't know, and William's secret ventures across the Channel were among them. "A lady as lovely as this one, a perfect English Venus — how could I not fall in love outright?"

"Fah, what do you know of beauty?" Francesca wrinkled her nose with contempt. "When you look at this picture, you're seeing the girl as I painted her, not as you'd see her for yourself."

"You're saying I'm no judge of a pretty face?" asked William, bemused. Certainly all his worldly experience among the fair sex should account for something. "That I've no eye for telling a sow's ear from a silk purse?"

But the duchess was serious. "No, Bonnington, listen to me. Real beauty is more than a pretty face, and deeper, too. Women see more in our sisters than men ever will, and discover the beauty that comes from grace, or intelligence, or cleverness, beauty that you men so willfully overlook. You could come within three paces of this girl as she really is, and not recognize her."

"I would know this lady anywhere," said William confidently. She was so fresh and different from any other woman of his acquaintance that perhaps she truly was the girl — no, the goddess — he was meant to marry, and for perhaps an entire two seconds, he amused himself with the notion. He'd certainly do worse than to find her divine little face smiling up at him from the pillow each morning, at least for a while. "How could I miss such beauty, such breeding, such elegance?"

"And how perfectly you prove my point, Bonnington!" said Francesca with a merry laugh. "Granting her all manner of gifts and talents, simply because I dressed her as a goddess!"

"You can't claim all the credit, Francesca," insisted William. "Not for that face. To have her gaze at me like that, all sweetness and devotion — what man could want for more?"

"'Devotion,' hah," said Francesca, shaking her head and lifting her gaze toward the ceiling with dismay. "When I drew this girl, Bonnington, she wasn't gazing at you. She was watching the antics of the ducks on the pond in St. James Park. She didn't even realize I was sketching her. I never spoke to her, or learned her name, nor will I likely ever see her again. A great pity, that, for I'd love to draw her again."

"But surely the lady's sweetness, her gentility — "

"She was not a lady, Bonnington," said Francesca, the hoops in her ears swinging emphatically against her cheeks, "at least not how you mean it. She was an orange-seller in the park with her empty basket on the bench beside her, and her look of happiness likely came from having sold all her wares so early in the afternoon. That was what made her as beautiful as any goddess to me, and that was what I wished to capture: her satisfaction and her rare joy in the afternoon."

An orange-seller. William smiled wryly as his sentimental ideal disintegrated. The girl would never be his countess, then, nor anyone else's, either. All the beauty in the world wouldn't compensate for her parading through the park selling fruit and likely herself as well. A pity, a royal pity, and William sighed with genuine regret as he looked at the painting again.

Not that he was ready to forget her completely. She still might do as his companion on board the Fancy. An orange-seller wouldn't be shy, but she'd know her place, and wouldn't cause mischief by putting on airs above her station the way Jenny had. No one of any consequence would miss her if things went amiss and she disappeared, either, for London swallowed up common girls like this each day. She'd be malleable, agreeable, and obedient, and she'd still be beautiful, no matter how Francesca had tried to deny it. If he let the chit keep the clothes, she'd likely agree to whatever he wished. She'd do, then; she'd do.

And once he found her, perhaps he could steal a bit of that glowing, enchanting joy of hers for himself.

"Thank'ee, lad, thank'ee," said Harriet Treene, smiling as she handed the little boy his orange. He took the fruit solemnly, staring at it in his hand like a golden prize as he trotted back with it to his hovering nursemaid. The poor overbred little gentleman was so trussed up in white linen and leather slippers, his blond hair long and curled like a girl's, that it was a wonder to Harriet how the sorry mite could even manage to move that much. If he were her son, he'd be running barefoot and free like a regular boy, getting into dirt and mischief. But then if he were hers, he'd be selling oranges, too, instead of buying them from her, and with a wry shake of her head, she shifted the remaining fruit to the front of her basket, smoothed the checkered cloth around them, and turned down the next path.

"Sweet Indian oranges, oh, so sweet!" she called, her voice lilting up and down. Every girl had her own cry, as distinctive as a bird's call, and in the four years since Harriet had begun she'd never stopped perfecting hers. It had to be loud enough to be heard over a summer crowd, yet clear and never shrill, as sweet upon a buyer's ears as the orange would be upon his tongue, and as easy to call with a tired voice at sunset as it was early on a fresh new morning.

But Harriet's workdays rarely lasted so long. To her considerable pride, she nearly always sold every last one of her share of the oranges from Shelby's wagon before the Westminster bells chimed three. Not only would her penny-laden pocket swing against her leg with a comforting heft, but she'd earn a precious hour of time for herself in the park, an hour worth more to her than all the coins together.

She'd only eight more oranges left for today. On an afternoon this fair, she could sell them all to a single party, if luck were with her. Resolutely she lifted her head and smiled sweetly, eagerly, as if her shoulders didn't ache from her basket's straps and the sweat wasn't prickling her forehead beneath her wide straw hat or trickling down her back inside her shift. No, instead she must look as if selling these eight oranges were her greatest single pleasure in the world, and sound as if she meant it.

"Sweet Indian oranges, oh, so sweet! Buy me sweet Indian oranges, oh, so sweet!"

"Here, darling, here," called a man's voice behind her. "I'll try your sweet oranges."

"Ah, good day, sir, good day!" Harriet turned gracefully with the basket before her, on her toes the way she'd seen the fine ladies do so their skirts would twirl and flutter around their ankles. Gentlemen liked such niceties; she'd learned that here in the park, too. "Fine Indian oranges, sir, direct from the ship what brought them! How many shall you try, sir? How many shall you take?"

The gentleman was astride his horse, a tall bay with black-stockinged legs that seemed to echo the man's own dark polished boots and buff-colored pantaloons. With her view shaded by the broad straw brim of her hat, those well-muscled legs were all Harriet could see of the man, but they were enough to judge that he rode often and in more challenging places than this park.

He was wealthy, too. Only rich men could afford to wear clothes that were so perfectly tailored and so flawlessly spotless. Faith, even the soles of his boots were blacked and polished! Clearly it took as many servants to ready him for his day as it must take grooms to curry and comb his horse. A fine gentleman like this could afford the rest of her basket without thinking twice, and before Harriet lifted her gaze she lightly bit her lower lip to make it redder, then smiled.

And gasped.

He was, quite simply, the most beautiful gentleman she'd ever seen. She couldn't describe him any better than that. He had black hair cropped fashionably short, a straight nose and a firm jaw and chin with a disarming cleft, and beneath the black slash of his brows his blue eyes seemed to glint and dance with some wicked secret, just between the two of them. He was tall and lean, with broad shoulders, his clothes tailored to display his natural elegance without being foppish or overdone.

And when he returned her smile, she felt herself turn soft and melt inside like butter left in the sun.

"Here you are at last," he said, easily swinging himself down from the horse to stand before her. "I knew I'd find you, sweetheart, though it's taken me nigh on a week of searching through this infernal park."

Instantly Harriet's smile took on a wary edge. Was she such an addlepated ninny as that, to forget everything she'd learned here on these paths? She was eighteen, no green lass; she knew something of the world. She'd seen what became of girls who disappeared into the bushes with gentlemen, eager to lift their petticoats for an extra shilling or two. Men were men, no matter how fine they dressed or how blue their eyes, and always believing that because she sold oranges, the rest of her could be bought as well. "Searching for her," hah: did he truly judge her simple enough to believe such trumpery as that?

She plucked one of her oranges from the basket, not only holding it out for him to admire, but also to remind him exactly what was for sale, and what wasn't.

"Mine be the sweetest oranges in the park, sir," she said, tossing the orange lightly in her palm. "You'll find none better, sir, not for all the silver and gold in a great Pharisee's purse."

"Pharisees? Here?" he asked, cocking one bemused black brow as he gently stroked his horse's nose. "In St. James Park?"

"Aye, sir," she answered promptly, though no one else had ever questioned her about Pharisees and their habits before. "And I ask you, sir, where else would a Pharisee o' fashion go a-walking in London, eh?"

"You amaze me, lass," he said, leaning forward and lowering his voice as if to share a fresh confidence with her. "Here I'd thought they'd be carried about in a sedan chair like any other gray-bearded worthy!"

"Oh, no, sir, they be walking for their constitutions, and in this very park." She grinned; she couldn't help it. Who'd have guessed such a handsome gentleman could banter like this? "Where else would you have them Pharisees go, sir? Tripping through Covent Garden to pick through yesterday's turnips and greens?"

"To the Tower?" he asked, sweeping his arm through the air with a dramatic flourish. "To London Bridge? To White's to parse the rules of the faro table?"

She laughed, delighted both by the foolishness of the images and with the playful wittiness of his words. "Nay, sir, they must stay here in the park, to buy me sweet oranges!"

He chuckled in return, a warm, rich, conspiratorial sound. "Then I must be sure to look for these worthies, to pay my respects. Considering this park is home to a true goddess like you, why not Pharisees, and pharaohs, and even a sibyl or two?"

"No goddess, sir," said Harriet. "Only an honest lass what wishes to make an honest bit o' coin."

"Ah, but you are a goddess, and I've the proof." He reached into the front of his dark blue frock coat, and drew out a folded sheet of cream-colored paper. Carefully he unfolded it, and held it up for her to see. "There you are, proof enough. Can you deny now that you're Venus herself?"

Once again Harriet gasped, but this time not with admiration. The page was covered with red-chalk drawings of her, sitting beside the duck pond. The likenesses were unmistakable, her face and form as expertly captured as the portrait-prints of the queen and king pinned over the bar in every taproom and tavern in the country.

But that was exactly what unsettled Harriet, and angered her, too. Her face was, well, hers, one of the few things that truly belonged to her alone, and to see it set down there for every passerby to study and criticize — the too-round cheeks and the wide-set eyes and the nose with the little bump on the bridge like a sheep's, even the way her hair was curling into untidy wisps around her forehead, every line drawn while she'd been completely unaware — how could she not feel as if something had been stolen from her?

"Here now, sir, how did you come by those?" she demanded, her cheeks flushed. "I never gave no artist leave to do such a thing, and it — it be wrong, it do, like stealing!"

"Hardly," said the gentleman, surpised by her reaction. "Consider it an honor, my dear, and a flattering one at that. What woman wouldn't want her beauty captured so splendidly?"

"I wouldn't," declared Harriet, dropping the orange back into the basket and reaching for the sheet of drawings. "Those be mine, sir, mine! That thieving, conniving artist robbed me of me face, sir, sure as if he'd clipped me pocket, and I've a mind to call the watchman on him, if you don't give them pictures to me."

But the man held the sheet up in the air, out of her reach. "Ah, ah, sweetheart, pray contain your fervor! These pictures aren't mine to give away, nor would the artist who drew them be pleased to hear you call her thieving and conniving."

Harriet scowled, lowering her hand. "A woman drew them pictures?"

"A lady, you ungrateful creature," he said lightly, somehow making that sound like an endearment instead of an insult. "Her Grace, the Duchess of Harborough. And despite how you're threatening her, she would gladly draw you again if you'd but present yourself at Harborough House. Likely she'd even pay you for your time, more than you'd make in a day here with your oranges."

"She would not!" scoffed Harriet with a disdainful sniff. "A duchess drawing pictures, paying to make pictures of me — that's stuff and nonsense, sir, nonsense and stuff!"

"Perhaps it is," he agreed, his smile curving wryly to one side, "and perhaps, sweetheart, it isn't at all. You've spirit and beauty enough for ten goddesses, but even the most clever deity must learn to discern true opportunity from empty promises."

"But you've made me no offers, nor promises, neither!"

He shrugged with disarming carelessness. "So I haven't, have I? You are clever, lass. I'd have to say I've judged you right."

She sniffed again, keeping her chin high. "Then mayhap you be the Pharisee, trying to judge me this way or t'other."

This time he laughed outright, his eyes crinkling with pleasure. Slowly he lowered his arm, refolded the sheet with the drawings, and tucked it into her basket behind the oranges.

"There," he said. "The pictures are yours, to do with what you will, even burn them, if that's what pleases you most."

Swiftly Harriet covered the folded paper with her hand, half expecting him to change his mind and try to take it back. Surely pictures like these must be worth a pretty sum, even to a rich man like him. But instead of taking the paper, he reached for her hand, bowing forward slightly as he raised her fingers to his lips, his lips, oh, dear God in Heaven, and now he was kissing the back of her hand the way she'd seen gentlemen do with fine ladies, his mouth brushing lightly over her skin, grazing it, teasing it, warming it, making her flush and stammer like a worthless, befuddled idiot.

And he felt it, too. She could tell from the way he looked at her when he freed her hand, the odd half-smile that could — should — have been smug but, curiously, wasn't. Instead he seemed almost thoughtful, as if considering her in an entirely new way.

"If you ever change your mind, sweetheart," he said softly, "bring that paper to Harborough House, and you'll be welcomed like the goddess you are, with nectar and ambrosia. Now good day to you, my Venus, and sweet dreams for your night."

Still she stood there like a dumbstruck ninny, watching while he lifted his hat to her — to her! — before he climbed back upon his horse and gathered its reins to head down the path and forever, forever from her life.

And at once Harriet came back to life.

"Wait, sir, wait!" she called breathlessly, hurrying after him. "Your orange, sir! You forgot your orange!"

He turned in the saddle, and she held the orange up to him.

"Ah, so I did," he said, winking as he leaned down to take the orange from her. "I'd leave behind my head, too, if my hat weren't there to keep it in place upon my neck. I've forgotten my orange, and to pay you as well."

"You are a clever gentleman, aren't you?" she said, tipping her head to one side to wink back as she echoed his own words back to him. Oh, what she was doing was a dangerous game, bold as new-polished brass. She'd never behaved like this with any other man she'd met in the park, and if her brother-in-law ever learned of it, he'd thrash her royally for being so forward and wanton.

But this gentleman wasn't like any of the others, and he certainly wasn't like any man she'd met among the costardmongers and butchers who lived in her street. He was young and rich and wickedly handsome, but what made him different was less tangible, something that hovered in the air between them like a conjurer's trick, something she couldn't find the words to explain. Most likely she would never see him again, for London was a grand, sprawling place, and his station in it was far, far above hers. But for this moment she could fancy, she could dream. That much in life came for free, even for girls from Threadneedle Court.

"You owe me nothing, sir," she said now, squinting a bit as she looked up at him and the sun behind him. The shadow of his hat's brim shielded his eyes from her, his expression unfathomable, and she gave a nervous little laugh at her own daring. "You gave me the pictures, sir, and now I'm giving you the orange. For remembering me by."

"But I won't forget you, lass," he said, his voice low and so unexpectedly earnest that she almost could believe him. "Indeed, I doubt I ever shall."

"Oh, nay, sir, of course you won't," she said. "Leastwise you won't until after you eat the orange."

Harriet turned away quickly then, so he would not see the regret in her face, and turned back to her life as it was, as it must be, and the ripe, golden fruit in the basket before her.

Sweet, oh, so sweet...

Abbeville, Finisterre
Republic of France

Alone at the last table at the Coq d'or, Jean-Luc Robitaille ignored his wine and plotted revenge.

The inn was nearly empty at this time of the night, and Robitaille was grateful for the quiet. Translating the English newspapers took all his concentration, laboriously sifting through the narrow gray columns word by word. With a groan, he rubbed his thumbs into his eyes, and willed them to make sense of the tiny letters in the wavering candlelight. His eyes were growing as old as the rest of him, and faster, too, in the service of the country, long hours each night toiling against the enemies of the Republic. With the port at Brest squeezed shut by the British blockade, Abbeville's smaller harbor had grown in importance, and Robitaille's influence as overseer of the port's safety had flourished with it.

But there, at last, when he felt sure his sight would fail him, he discovered the one name he sought, the one he hated most in this life and would into the next. Now the confusing English words seemed to fly beneath his eyes as he read, devouring everything he could find and learn of this man, his weaknesses and his strengths and his habits. But most of all Robitaille hunted for the one special key to his fate, the one person that the Englishman loved and treasured most in the world.

In spite of his pain and bitterness, Robitaille smiled. His chance would come soon, and he wouldn't fail to seize it for his own. His network of contacts spread clear across the Channel to England, but this, this, he would save for himself. Almost lovingly his gnarled fingers lingered over the page, tracing the printed name of the Englishman who must be made to suffer.

The English Lord Bonnington who had murdered his son.

Copyright © 2001 by Miranda Jarrett

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Engaging Regency sequel

    In 1799 London, William Manderville an Earl concludes that the actresses he uses to cover his government work on the French coast are failures. He needs someone different and thinks he found his answer in the drawing done by a Duchess of an orange seller commoner. When William finds the orange seller Harriet Treene he shows her the picture saying his friend will pay her if she poses as a model. <P>At the family pie shop, Harriet notices her older sister Bett looks tired from work, raising an infant, and being pregnant. Harriet decides to accept the Duchess¿ offer to paint her for a fee. Harriet visits the Duchess but William arrives and offers her a deal. He will finance a tea shop for her in exchange for her posing as his mistress on his messenger trips to France. As they act out the masquerade neither expected love or the danger that awaits them in France from an individual seeking revenge. <P> THE VERY COMELY COUNTESS, the sequel to the DARING DUCHESS, is an exciting tale due to the espionage subplot and a glimpse at the working class, but especially because of the love story between a commoner and a noble. Though this book uses the same plot device as its predecessor and lacks the locale creativeness of the first book, fans will enjoy the tale because the lead characters are a delightful daring duo who deserve a lifetime together. Regency romantic suspense fans will gain much pleasure from award winning Miranda Jarrett¿s wonderful tale. <P>Harriet Klausner

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