Jack Lester seeks the perfect brideone who is attractive and kind, but who also loves him in spite of his wealth. Which is why he keeps this trifling detail hidden. But when Sophie Winterton enters his life, believing he must marry into wealth to run his family's estate, how will he convince her that she is the woman he desiresand that he can be the husband she deserves?
Secrets of a Courtesan
Eve Nightingale thought she had put her past as mistress to the Duke of Welburn behind her. But when the handsome duke strolls into her small village, she finds it hard to keep her secrets concealed and to keep her heart from stirring for him once again.
How to Woo a Spinster
Still unmarried at twenty-eight, Lady Emmaline Daughtry has resigned herself to spinsterhood. Then Captain John Alistair arrives at her doorthe very image of the perfect lover of her most private dreams. But can a man with a secret and a woman who's never known love find happiness together?
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About the Author
USA Today bestselling author Nicola Cornick has written over thirty historical romances for Harlequin and HQN Books. She has been nominated twice for a RWA RITA Award and twice for the UK RNA Award. She works as a historian and guide in a seventeenth century house. In 2006 she was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Ruskin College, Oxford, where she wrote her dissertation on heroes.
USA TODAY bestselling author Kasey Michaels is the author of more than one hundred books. She has earned four starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and has won an RT Book Reviews Career Achievement Award and several other commendations for her contemporary and historical novels. Kasey resides with her family in Pennsylvania. Readers may contact Kasey via her website at www.KaseyMichaels.com and find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/AuthorKaseyMichaels.
Read an Excerpt
"Lady Asfordby, of Asfordby Grange, requests the pleasure of the company of Mr. Jack Lester, of Rawling's Cottage, and guests, at a ball."
Ensconced in an armchair by the fireplace, a glass of brandy in one long-fingered hand, the white card of Lady Asfordby's invitation in the other, Jack Lester made the pronouncement with ill-disguised gloom.
"She's the grand dame of these parts, ain't she?" Lord Percy Almsworthy was the second of the three gentlemen taking their ease in the parlour of Jack's hunting box. Outside, the wind howled about the eaves and tugged at the shutters. All three had ridden to hounds that day, taking the field with the Quorn. But while both Jack and his brother Harry, presently sprawled on the chaise, were clipping riders, up with the best of them, Percy had long ago taken Brummel's lead, indefatigable in turning out precise to a pin but rarely venturing beyond the first field. Which explained why he was now idly pacing the room, restless, while the brothers lounged, pleasantly exhausted, with the look about them of men not willing to stir. Pausing by the fireplace, Percy looked down on his host. "Lend a bit of colour to your stay, what? Besides," he added, turning to amble once more, "You never knowmight see a golden head that takes your eye."
"In this backwater?" Jack snorted. "If I couldn't find any golden head worth the attention last Seasonnor during the Little SeasonI don't give much for my chances here."
"Oh, I don't know." Unconsciously elegant, Harry Lester lounged on the chaise, one broad shoulder propped against a cushion, his thick golden locks rakishly dishevelled. His sharply intelligent green eyes wickedly quizzed his elder brother. "You seem remarkably set on this start of yours. As finding a wife has become so important to you, I should think it behoves you to turn every stone. Who knows which one hides a gem?"
Blue eyes met green. Jack grunted and looked down. Absent-mindedly, he studied the gilt-edged card. Firelight glinted over the smooth waves of his dark hair and shadowed his lean cheeks. His brow furrowed.
He had to marry. He had inwardly acknowledged that fact more than twenty months ago, even before his sister, Lenore, had married the Duke of Eversleigh, leaving the burden of the family squarely on his shoulders.
"Perseverancethat's what you need." Percy nodded to no one in particular. "Can't let another Season go by without making your choicewaste your life away if you're too finicky."
"I hate to say it, old son," Harry said. "But Percy's right. You can't seriously go for years looking over the field, turning your nose up at all the offerings." Taking a sip of his brandy, he eyed his brother over the rim of his glass. His green eyes lit with an unholy gleam. "Not," he added, his voice soft, "unless you allow your good fortune to become known."
"Heaven forbid!" Eyes narrowing, Jack turned to Harry. "And just in case you have any ideas along that track, perhaps I should remind you that it's our good fortuneyours and mine and Gerald's, too?" Features relaxing, Jack sank back in his chair, a smile erasing the severe line of his lips. "Indeed, the chance of seeing you playing catch-me-who-can with all the enamoured damsels is sorely tempting, brother mine."
Harry grinned and raised his glass. "Fear notthat thought has already occurred. If the ton stumbles onto our secret, it won't be through me. And I'll make a point of dropping a quiet word in our baby brother's ear, what's more. Neither you nor I need him queering our pitch."
"Too true." Jack shuddered artistically. "The prospect does not bear thinking of."
Percy was frowning. "I can't see it. Why not let it out that you're all as rich as bedammed? God knows, you Lesters have been regarded as nothing more than barely well-to-do for generations. Now that's changed, why not reap the rewards?" His guileless expression was matched by his next words. "The debs would be yours for the askingyou could take your pick."
Both Lester men bent looks of transparent sympathy upon their hapless friend.
Bewildered, Percy blinked and patiently waited to be set aright.
Unable to hold a candle to his long-time companions in the matter of manly attributes, he had long since become reconciled to his much slighter figure, his sloping shoulders and spindly shanks. More than reconciledhe had found his vocation as a Pink of the Ton. Dressing to disguise his shortcomings and polishing his address to overcome his innate shyness had led to yet another discovery; his newfound status spared him from the trial of chasing women. Both Jack and Harry thrived on the sport, but Percy's inclinations were of a less robust nature. He adored the ladiesfrom a distance. In his estimation, his present style of life was infinitely preferable to the racy existence enjoyed by his companions.
However, as both Jack and Harry were well aware, his present lifestyle left him woefully adrift when it came to matters of strategy in handling the female of the species, particularly those dragons who menaced all rakesthe matrons of the ton.
And, naturally, with his mild manners and retiring ways, he was hardly the sort of gentleman who inhabited the debutantes' dreams. All the Lester menJack, at thirty-six, with his dark good looks and powerful athlete's physique, and Harry, younger by two years, his lithe figure forever graceful and ineffably elegantand even twenty-four-year-old Gerald, with his boyish charmwere definitely the stuff of which females' dreams were made.
"Actually, Percy, old man," Harry said. "I rather suspect Jack thinks he can have his pick regardless."
Jack shot a supercilious glance at his sibling. "As a matter of fact, I've not previously considered the point."
Harry's lips lifted; gracefully, he inclined his head. "I have infinite confidence, oh brother mine, that if and when you find your particular golden head, you won't need the aid of our disgusting wealth in persuading her to your cause."
"Yesbut why the secrecy?" Percy demanded.
"Because," Jack explained, "while the matrons have considered my fortune, as you so succinctly put it, as barely well-to-do, they've been content to let me stroll among their gilded flowers, letting me look my fill without undue interference."
With three profligate sons in the family and an income little more than a competence, it was commonly understood that the scions of Lester Hall would require wealthy brides. However, given the family connections and the fact that Jack, as eldest, would inherit the Hall and principal estates, no one had been surprised when, once he had let it be known he was seriously contemplating matrimony, the invitations had rolled in.
"Naturally," Harry suavely put in. "With all Jack's years of. .worldly experience, no one expects him to fall victim to any simple snares and, given the lack of a Lester fortune, there's insufficient incentive for the dragons to waste effort mounting any of their more convoluted schemes."
"So I've been free to view the field." Jack took back the conversational reins. "However, should any whiff of our changed circumstances begin circulating through the ton, my life of unfettered ease will be over. The harpies will descend with a vengeance."
"Nothing they like better than the fall of a rake," Harry confided to Percy. "Brings out their best effortsnever more hellishly inventive than when they've a rich rake with a declared interest in matrimony firmly in their sights. They relish the prospect of the hunter being the hunted."
Jack threw him a quelling glance. "Sufficient to say that my life will no longer be at all comfortable. I won't be able to set foot outside my door without guarding against the unimaginable. Debs at every turn, hanging on a fellow's arm, forever batting their silly lashes. It's easy to put one off women for life."
Harry shut his eyes and shuddered.
The light of understanding dawned on Percy's cherubic countenance. "Oh," he said. Then, "In that case, you'd better accept Lady Asfordby's invitation."
Jack waved a languid hand. "I've all the Season to go yet. No need to get in a pother."
"Ah, yes. But will you? Have all the Season, I mean?" When both Jack and Harry looked lost, Percy explained, "This fortune of yours was made on 'Change, wasn't it?"
Jack nodded. "Lenore took the advice of one of the pater's acquaintances and staked a fleet of merchantmen to the Indies. The company was formed through the usual channels and is listed in London."
"Precisely!" Percy came to a flourishing halt by the fireplace. "So any number of men with an interest at the Exchange know the company was wildly successful. And lots of them must know that the Lesters were one of the major backers. That sort of thing's not secret, y'know. M'father, for one, would be sure to know."
Jack and Harry exchanged looks of dawning dismay.
"There's no way to silence all those who know," Percy continued. "So you've only got until one of those men happens to mention to his wife that the Lesters' fortunes have changed and the whole world will know."
A groan escaped Harry.
"Nowait." Jack straightened. "It's not that simple, thank God." The last was said with all due reverence. "Lenore organized it, but naturally she could hardly act for herself in the matter. She used our broker, old Charters, a terribly stuffy old soul. He has never approved of females being involved in businessthe old man had to lean on him to accept instructions from Lenore years ago. Charters only agreed on the understanding of secrecy all roundhe didn't want it known that he took orders from a woman. Which probably means he won't admit it was us he was working for, as it's fairly well known Lenore was in charge of our finances. If Charters doesn't talk, there's no reason to imagine our windfall will become common knowledge overnight."
Percy frowned and pursed his lips. "Not overnight, maybe. But dashed if I think it'll be all that long. These things filter through the cracks in the mortar, so my old man says."
A sober silence descended on the room as the occupants weighed the situation.
"Percy's right." Harry's expression was grim.
Glumly resigned, Jack held up Lady Asfordby's invitation. "In more ways than one. I'll send round to Lady Asfordby to expect us."
"Not me." Harry shook his head decisively.
Jack's brows rose. "You'll get caught in the storm, too."
Stubbornly, Harry shook his head again. He drained his glass and placed it on a nearby table. "I haven't let it be known I'm in the market for a wife, for the simple reason that I'm not." He stood, stretching his long, lean frame. Then he grinned. "Besides, I like living dangerously."
Jack returned the grin with a smile.
"Anyway, I'm promised at Belvoir tomorrow. Gerald's there I'll tip him the wink over our desire for silence on the subject of our communal fortune. So you can proffer my regrets to her ladyship with a clear conscience." Harry's grin broadened. "Don't forget to do so, incidentally. You might recall she was an old friend of our late lamented aunt and can be a positive dragonshe'll doubtless be in town for the Season, and I'd rather not find myself facing her fire."
With a nod to Percy, Harry made for the door, dropping a hand on Jack's shoulder in passing. "I should inspect Prince's fetlocksee if that poultice has done any good. I'll be off early tomorrow, so I'll wish you good hunting." With a commiserating grin, he left.
As the door closed behind his brother, Jack's gaze returned to Lady Asfordby's invitation. With a sigh, he put it in his pocket, then took a long sip of his brandy.
"So, are we going?" Percy asked around a yawn.
Grimly, Jack nodded. "We're going."
While Percy went up to bed and the house settled to slumber around him, Jack remained in his chair by the fire, blue eyes intent on the flames. He was still there when, an hour later, Harry reentered the room.
"What? Still here?"
Jack sipped his brandy. "As you see."
Harry hesitated for a moment, then crossed to the sideboard. "Musing on the delights of matrimony?"
Head back, Jack let his eyes track his brother's movements. "On the inevitability of matrimony, if you really want to know."
Sinking onto the chaise, Harry lifted a brow. "Doesn't have to be you, you know."
Jack's eyes opened wide. "Is that an offerthe ultimate sacrifice?"
Harry grinned. "I was thinking of Gerald."
"Ah." Jack let his head fall back and stared at the ceiling. "I have to admit I've thought of him, too. But it won't do."
"He'll never marry in time for the pater."
Harry grimaced but made no answer. Like Jack, he was aware of their sire's wish to see his line continue unbroken, as it had for generations past. It was the one last nagging worry clouding a mind otherwise prepared for death.
"But it's not only that," Jack admitted, his gaze distant. "If I'm to manage the Hall as it should be managed, I'll need a chatelainesomeone to take on the role Lenore filled. Not the business side, but all the rest of it. All the duties of a well-bred wife." His lips twisted wryly. "Since Lenore left, I've learned to appreciate her talents as never before. But the reins are in my hands now, and I'll be damned if I don't get my team running in good order."
Harry grinned. "Your fervour has raised a good few brows. I don't think anyone expected such a transformationprofligate rakehell to responsible landowner in a matter of months."
Jack grunted. "You'd have changed, too, if the responsibility had fallen to you. But there's no question about it, I need a wife. One like Lenore."
"There aren't many like Lenore."
"Don't I know it." Jack let his disgruntlement show. "I'm seriously wondering if what I seek existsa gentlewoman with charm and grace, efficient and firm enough to manage the reins."
"Blond, wellendowed and of sunny disposition?"
Jack shot his brother an irritated glance. "It certainly wouldn't hurt, given the rest of her duties."
Harry chuckled. "No likely prospects in sight?"
"Nary a one." Jack's disgust was back. "After a year of looking, I can truthfully inform you that not one candidate made me look twice. They're all so alikeyoung, sweet and innocentand quite helpless. I need a woman with backbone and all I can find are clinging vines."
Silence filled the room as they both considered his words.