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CAN SHE REFORM HIM?
Eleanor is stunned to discover she is to wed Frederick Stoneham—the man she has secretly pined after for years, despite his reputation. When Frederick's former mistress tells her a horrible lie, Eleanor feels betrayed. But Frederick's persistence—and a passion that refuses to be ignored—are slowly melting Eleanor's resolve. Now Frederick must prove to Eleanor that his days as a rake are in the past and that she is the only woman he will ever love.
"Delicious, sexy, and fun!"
—New York Times bestselling author Jill Barnett on Unlaced
"Marry him? Dear Lord, Papa, no. You cannot mean this." Lady Eleanor Ashton shook her head, her stomach clenched into an uncomfortable knot. For a moment, she feared she might begin to retch.
"Of course I mean it, Eleanor dearest." Her father rose from behind his massive mahogany desk, leaning against the blotter with his palms. "It's all settled between myself and Lord Worthington. You're to be married by Christmastide. Young Frederick has already agreed. Come now, daughter, I thought you would be pleased."
"Pleased?" Eleanor's voice rose a pitch as she clutched her skirts in angry fists. "Why ever would I be pleased? He's ... he's the worst sort of rake, Papa, a ... a rogue," she stuttered, the heat rising in her cheeks. "Not at all the type I said I would consider."
"Is that so? Well, your mother tells me all the unattached young ladies are swooning over him. She expected you would be delighted that he's accepted you."
Whatever was he talking about? No well-bred young ladies swooned over Frederick Stoneham; how could they? He had not ventured out into polite society, not once in the six months he'd been in Town. Indeed, Eleanor had spent the entire Season in London, and had not had even a glimpse of him. Nor had anyoneof her acquaintance.
There had been rumors, of course. The ton had been rife with gossip and innuendo, with eagerly whispered tales of his misbehaviors, his many conquests and exploits. To say that the young ladies of the ton were swooning over him was, at best, a gross exaggeration. Indeed, it was patently untrue. Her mother must have been mistaken, confusing him with someone else. Unless ...
Her thoughts shifted guiltily to her diary, and her palms dampened at once as her gaze darted to the doorway, toward her mother's favorite sitting room just down the corridor. Was it possible that Mama had somehow found the slim volume Eleanor kept safely concealed beneath her feather mattress? Had her mother read the silly, childish scribblings? Dear God, no. It would be far too mortifying to bear.
"But I'm not delighted, Papa," she said, finding her voice at last. "Not in the least. He cares nothing for me nor for anyone, save himself. I cannot fathom why he would accept such an arrangement as he is not the type of man to accept his father's wishes and do his duty."
"It would seem that you are mistaken, as Lord Worthington claims to have his full agreement on the matter. Come, now, Eleanor. Do not fret so. Haven't you always said you've no wish to marry for love? You haven't changed your mind on that count now, have you, daughter?"
"No, of course not." One hand rose to her temple, massaging the hollow beside her brow. If only her papa knew the irony of the situation.
"Then I don't understand your hesitation. It's an excellent match, a fine one, indeed. Lord Worthington's estate in Oxfordshire is large and lucrative, as are his holdings here in Essex. I've no doubt that marriage will settle young Frederick and, besides, you'll be made a baroness one day."
A baroness? No, it didn't signify. She could not be betrothed to Frederick Stoneham. It was far too cruel a twist of fate.
And why ever would Frederick agree to the betrothal? He was far too young to settle down and marry, and Eleanor knew just what he thought of her-she'd been cringing over the memory of his cruel words for more than four years now. "A horse of a girl," he'd called her, and that had been the most complimentary thing he'd said.
Oh, she'd known all along that her infatuation was hopeless, ill-considered at best. Never in a million years would she have confessed her shameful secret to anyone, not even her brother. Henry would have thought her out of her right mind. She was a smart girl, a sensible girl. Practical and pragmatic. She wasn't prone to flights of fancy or silly romantic notions. She'd readily agreed that her father should choose her husband, but she'd never imagined he'd choose so poorly.
No, she'd imagined a match with a studious, upstanding nobleman, a scholar, perhaps, like Papa-an heir to an earldom at the very least. Not some reckless youth whose rakish exploits were near legendary. A mere mister, with only a barony in his future! Whatever was her father thinking?
She closed her eyes, sighing deeply. Frederick's devilishly handsome visage swam into focus in her mind's eye-deep brown eyes the color of drinking chocolate; sensual, full lips curved into a wicked grin; sun-bronzed skin that might fool one into believing he led a healthful, sporting life rather than one consumed with debauchery. With a shake of her head, she opened her eyes, banishing the images.
Despite every rational thought to the contrary, she'd wanted Frederick Stoneham to want her-wanted it so desperately she'd thought she might go mad with longing. But she hadn't meant like this-not for no other reason save her dowry, and what other reason could there be? Her stomach lurched as she rose from her seat on trembling legs. "You must excuse me, Papa," she called out, fleeing blindly from the room through a veil of tears.
"I'll tell Lord Worthington you've agreed, then," her father called out after her. "Tomorrow, before I leave for Kent."
Tell him whatever you wish, she thought, hurrying up the wide marble stairs to the sanctuary of her bedchamber. I'll never agree to this. Never. Not while I've breath left in my body.
"Married? How positively dreadful, Frederick." Molly tossed her long blond curls over one deliciously curved shoulder, her bow of a mouth drawn into a pout. "Why would you want to do such a thing? Don't I please you well enough?" She trailed one manicured nail down his bare torso as she gazed up at him, her round eyes shining.
He reached down to cup her bottom, drawing her closer. Her skin was warm and soft, and she smelled invitingly of rose petals. "Aye, you please me immensely, love. Perhaps I should show you just how much." He dipped his head toward her neck, his tongue skimming across her leaping pulse.
She pushed him away. "Then why must you marry? Why now? You're far too young to take a wife. It's ... it's positively unnatural."
Frederick sighed. "She has a huge portion behind her, and I could use the blunt. To buy trinkets for you, among other things. Besides, think how much more time I'll have to spend with you once I'm free from the marriage-minded mamas."
"Hah! As if any respectable mama would consider you. And, besides, have you forgotten that you'll be expected to spend time with your wife?" Molly asked petulantly. "Time that could be spent with me, instead?"
"Not overmuch, I assure you, love. This is simply a duty, a marriage of convenience to a perfectly respectable, wholly unattractive woman. She cares nothing for me nor expects much, I vow."
She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear with a huff. "Don't be so sure of that, Frederick. You said the same of that tart in Shropshire."
Her tone struck a chord of annoyance with him, his mood souring at once. He owed Molly nothing. Lovely though she was, she was a drain on his finances and a hindrance to his pursuit of pleasures where pleasures could be had. And they could be had quite easily, he'd realized.
That 'tart' in Shropshire had given him exceptional pleasure for more than a fortnight. An experienced widow nearly twice his age, she had surely taught him a thing or two, and he'd been loathe to end the association and return to London and Molly's bed. But, truly, one kept mistress at a time seemed sufficient, especially now that he planned to take a wife.
An unremarkable wife at that, he thought with a grunt of displeasure, recalling the lady in question's form and features. She'd been no more than sixteen the last time he'd laid eyes on her-uncommonly tall with a long face and round, skittish eyes. A Long Meg, not the slightest bit delicate or graced with feminine charm.
Still, he'd liked her well enough, as he remembered. She'd been a hoyden then, outspoken, not yet formed into the gentle lady she would likely become. Indeed, he'd first stumbled upon her romping with a pair of hounds in the meadow near her home, dashing this way and that, tugging on the end of a stick while one of the enormous hounds tugged back. The sight had amused him; it seemed something a wild Irish lass might do, not the high-born daughter of an English lord.
As he'd become better acquainted with young Lady Eleanor Ashton, he'd learned that such behavior was nothing out of the ordinary for her. He'd lifted her up into his saddle once and raced across a gently rolling field, while Eleanor laughed gaily, her shouts of "faster!" carried on the warm, summer breeze. Now that he thought about it, he had enjoyed her company very much.
Still, he was a man who enjoyed beautiful women, and she had been so unremarkable in appearance that he could not even recall the color of her eyes.
He'd find out soon enough, he supposed, as he was traveling to Essex on the morrow to complete the marriage agreement with her father, Lord Mandeville. He only hoped their business would be concluded efficiently and expeditiously, for he had no intention of remaining in his father's company any longer than necessary. He had no reason to tarry in Essex and subject himself to his father's displeasure for more than a day or two at most. God help him.
"I should go," he muttered, rising from the bed and stalking to the chair where his breeches lay in a rumpled heap.
"Don't be cross with me," Molly snapped, sitting upright in a huff. "You can't very well expect me to delight in your betrothal. Really, Frederick. Must you go?" She leaned forward, her delectable breasts pushed forward invitingly. "I don't think I've had quite enough of you yet."
With a scowl, he stepped into his breeches. "I'm afraid it will have to do for now. Surely you'll survive a sennight without me. I have no doubt you'll find someone else to warm your bed in my absence."
"Is that what you think of me, Frederick? That I entertain other men, here in the home that's paid for with your coin?"
He shrugged as he reached for his shirt. Hell, it didn't matter to him if she did. With a start, he realized that he had no feelings whatsoever for the woman, save an appreciation for her carnal talents.
Which, he had to admit, were considerable. No, perhaps he wasn't quite ready to cut her loose-not just yet.
Reaching for his coat, he fished in the pocket and retrieved the ruby and diamond bracelet he'd purchased only that morning in Bond Street while he'd been out choosing a betrothal ring for his intended. In haste, he'd taken the bracelet and a matching ruby and diamond ring without much consideration. The ring remained tucked safely away in his traveling case, but he'd shoved the bracelet into his pocket before heading off to the townhouse he shared with Molly on Jermyn Street-indeed paid for by his own coin.
With a flick of the wrist, he tossed the bracelet to the bed. "Here, let this bauble smooth your ruffled feathers."
Just as he expected, Molly squealed in delight. She dangled the bracelet between her forefinger and thumb, the waning sunlight reflecting off the jewels, casting flame-colored prisms of light across the smooth, white walls.
"Oooh, Frederick! It's simply exquisite." Her eyes danced with greedy pleasure as she slipped it over her wrist. "Come now," she purred, patting the bed beside her. "Must you really go so soon?"
"I'm afraid I must." His father did not expect him for a fortnight, but it wouldn't do at all for him to arrive as expected. No, timely comings and goings were far too respectable for Frederick.
Besides, it would vex his father greatly to have his only living son and heir arrive quite unexpectedly, and Frederick took perverse pride in vexing the man. And why not? The Baron Worthington was universally displeased by his son regardless of what Frederick did or did not do. Therefore, he might as well put a bit of effort into earning his censure. He hastily pulled on his boots, then turned to face Molly once more. "But don't fret. Soon enough I'll be back in Town and in your bed."
The sooner the better, he thought, making an exaggerated bow to the lady before striding purposefully toward the door.
"Au revoir, mon amour," Molly called out after him, as if she were a French courtesan instead of the Whitechapel-doxy-turned-stage-actress that she was.
More than he deserved, really.
It was pleasantly warm for early September, with only the smallest trace of autumn chill in the air. She inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with air redolent with the sweet scents of the garden around her. No sounds save the buzz of insects, the chirruping of birds, and the occasional bleating of sheep in the distance spoiled the fine afternoon.
And yet Eleanor was restless. Dissatisfied. Why did her life have to change so? She'd been happy enough with the sometimes dull routine of her days-too happy, in fact, to have taken a husband before now. Two Seasons had passed rather uneventfully, and yet she hadn't seen fit to accept any of the offers of marriage she'd received. Not that there had been all that many offers, but still ...
She shook her head. Just what had she been waiting for? She hadn't sought love-that much was certain. Or at least she hadn't thought she'd sought love. It seemed to her that, more often than not, love was a one-sided affair, leaving one party unaffected and the other pining away miserably for an affection that would never be requited. Her own parents were a perfect example, and theirs was not what Eleanor would term an agreeable marriage.
Instead it seemed perfectly reasonable to allow her father to choose her husband, now that two Seasons had passed unsuccessfully-at least her mother had termed them 'unsuccessful.' Eleanor had found them perfectly pleasant and diverting, even without an acceptable proposal.
However had her father managed to choose the one man who would put his daughter in danger of suffering the same fate he did? Eleanor tried to deny any knowledge of her mother's infidelities whenever her brother was vulgar enough to bring them up, but she knew. And she knew how her father suffered for it.
There must have been a dozen eligible bachelors he could have chosen from, gentlemen who might have accepted her. Men who fit the carefully detailed description she'd given him of her ideal husband. Why had fate seen fit to play such a cruel trick on her?
The distant sound of hooves drew her attention toward the road. Perhaps she'd call on Selina today-it was nearly an hour's walk to Marbleton, but some exercise would do her good.
She clipped another fragrant bloom and added it to her basket. Yes, she would go to Marbleton, but perhaps she'd take the carriage, instead. It seemed a silly indulgence as she generally enjoyed the walk, but her anxiety mounted most uncomfortably by the hour.
Frederick was expected in less than a fortnight and Eleanor was going mad with nervous anticipation. Selina's soothing presence and sisterly advice might help settle her nerves and lend her the confidence needed to defy her father's wishes.
Were she to flatly refuse to marry Frederick, she supposed her father would not force her to do so against her will. No doubt his intentions had been well-meaning. Mama had told him that Frederick Stoneham was the most elusive and secretly desired bachelor for miles about, and Papa had no doubt delighted in securing such an eagerly sought match for his only daughter. Foolish, foolish man.
But were she to confess the truth to him-tell him exactly why she could not marry Frederick-then he would surely understand and extricate her from the agreement. Of course, to confess that she harbored such silly, romantic notions about a man who hadn't given her a second thought would be humiliating at best.
Yet the alternative-marrying Frederick-was simply out of the question. Her only hope was that the past few years had robbed him of his near-legendary good looks, leaving him fat, prematurely balding, and wholly unappealing. Entirely unlikely, of course, but if it were so, then perhaps she would be immune to his charms.
Excerpted from To Love a Scoundrel by Kristina Cook Copyright © 2007 by Kristina Cook Hort. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 7, 2009
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