Miss Frances Birmingham has set her cap for the charming, dashing Mr. Charles Holloway. She and her best friend, Annie, have the most clever idea. They've arranged a bachelor auction for charity. The proceeds will go to the Royale Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals and the winners will be escorted to the most talked-about ball of the Season by their bachelor of choice. When Frances makes a bid for Charlie, will one fun night's amusement turn into a lifetime of love?
A Secret Affair is part of the Secret Brides series by Valerie Bowman.
About the Author
Valerie Bowman grew up in Illinois with six sisters (she's the youngest) and a huge supply of historical romance novels. After a cold and snowy stint earning a degree in English at Smith College, she moved to Florida the first chance she got.
Valerie now lives in Jacksonville with her two rascally dogs. When she's not writing, she keeps busy reading, traveling, or vacillating between watching crazy reality TV and PBS. She is the author of books including Secrets of a Wedding Night and Secrets of a Runaway Bride.
Valerie loves to hear from readers. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Valerie Bowman is an award-winning author who writes Regency-set historical romance novels aka Racy Regency Romps! Since her debut in 2012, Valerie's books have received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. She's been an RT Reviewers' Choice nominee for Best First Historical Romance and Best Historical Romance Love and Laughter. Two of her books have been nominated for the Kirkus Prize for fiction and New York Times bestselling author Lisa Kleypas calls them, "Too delightful to miss!"
Valerie has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in history from Smith College. By day, she is a technical editor at a computer software company. By night, she combines her love of writing, history, and romance to craft stories about people falling in love.
Originally from Rantoul, Illinois, Valerie lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her family including her two rascally dogs. When she's not writing, she keeps busy reading, traveling, or vacillating between watching crazy reality TV or PBS.
Read an Excerpt
A Secret Affair
By Valerie Bowman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Valerie Bowman
All rights reserved.
London, November 1816
"Ladies, what shall you bid?" the auctioneer's voice boomed through the assembly rooms.
Charlie Holloway glanced around the wallpapered space. Why in the bloody hell had he ever agreed to this? It had seemed like a simple enough affair when his soon-to-be sister-in-law, Annie, had explained it to him. But standing here in the queue, watching the eyes of the marriage-minded misses and their hovering mamas devour him like he was a sweetmeat, he knew for certain. Being auctioned off like a piece of horseflesh was entirely unsettling.
"Sir Reginald Swain, ladies," the auctioneer announced, while that worthy knight shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
Charlie glanced around the room trying not to meet the eyes of the unmarried females in the crowd. He didn't care if the money went to charity. He would take Annie to task for suggesting he do this, let alone actually convincing him to agree to it. Sheer lunacy. That's what it was. When Annie — all big brown eyes and impossibly long lashes — had come to him a fortnight ago and asked him to participate in a bachelor auction, he should have bloody well said no.
"But it's for the Royal Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals," she'd pleaded. "All you need do is spend one evening at the Wilmingtons' ball with the lady who bids high. And," she'd added for good measure, "Timothy and Michael have already agreed."
That was it. Now that he thought on it, that's what had convinced him. Well, more precisely his younger brothers, Tim and Michael, giving him a good ribbing about how much more they would fetch on the auction block in comparison to him.
"You're too old," Michael had razzed him. "And you're a mere mister."
Charlie had arched a brow, giving his youngest brother a disdainful look. "I'm only thirty, and you're a mere mister too," he'd pointed out. "And at least I'm a second son. Jordan need only take a bad tumble from a horse, and I'm an earl. You, however, are fourth in line; with Tim about to be married soon, you may have a nephew to contend with before long."
This, of course, had been met with much slapping on the back and objection from Jordan who did not appreciate the tumble-from-a-horse comment; not to mention, he'd recently got himself betrothed as well to ... Annie.
Charlie's thoughts snapped back to the present and the bloody uncomfortable situation he was in.
"Ladies, is there a bid of five pounds?" the auctioneer ventured. Sir Reginald stood several paces ahead on a low dais, ladies parading in front of him as if they were examining his flank. Poor bastard.
Why had the Royal Society for the Humane Treatment of Animals allowed this egregiousness? It was positively indecent. Made nearly impossible to bear by the fact that Tim had already been snapped up for the tidy sum of ten pounds by his intended, Miss Wintergale, and Michael had been sold soon after to a pretty little blond lady. She was a bit on the plump side, but apparently her wallet was plump too. She'd paid nearly twenty-five pounds for Michael who'd pulled on his sleeve, bowed to the miss, and given Charlie a decidedly arrogant grin as he'd sauntered off.
"I have five. Is there a bid of ten?" the auctioneer continued.
Ten? For Sir Reginald? Even Charlie was skeptical.
He glanced around, first at the remaining ladies who had yet to bid on a gentleman. Most of them were wallflowers, young ladies who no doubt would have to pay for an escort to the Wilmingtons' ball, the grandest affair of the little Season. Not that there was anything the matter with wallflowers. They usually made the best company, intelligent, well read, often surprisingly witty. Yes, he'd take a wallflower over a belle any day. At the moment, however, he only wished one of the shy young misses would pipe up and offer for him and get this bloody farce over with.
"Surely, you can spare ten pounds, ladies, to spend the evening in the company of this worthy gentleman?"
Capital. If a knight was unable to fetch ten pounds, Charlie's prospects appeared dim indeed.
The crowd remained silent. And it was a crowd. But they were not there to bid on Sir Reginald. And they were not there to bid on Charlie, either. No. The swirling mass of females who ostensibly wanted to help those poor little animals, remained for one reason, and one reason alone. Charlie glanced to his left, to the man next in the queue. Poor Townsende.
Oliver Townsende, the newly minted Duke of Markingham, wore an expression Charlie could only describe as both bored and indifferent with just a touch of get-me-the-hell-out-of-here. Charlie knew that look. It was the same expression that no doubt resided upon his own face. The belles were about to start a bidding war for Townsende.
Charlie shook his head. How the hell had Annie, that little pixie, managed to convince an eligible duke to participate in these shenanigans? Charlie should have listened to Medford. The viscount had wanted no part of this charade and had told Annie firmly no, even though he was very close friends with both Annie and her older sister, Lily. Leave it to Lord Perfect to remain in control. Charlie groaned. He'd do well to follow Medford's lead in future.
Sir Reginald, poor chap, was sold for the five, and quickly ushered away. Townsende took a deep breath, gave Charlie a sympathetic eye roll, and strode forward to take his place on the dais.
A particularly bold brunette made her way to the front of the room as the bidding for the duke opened. "Fifty pounds," the brunette nearly shouted.
A gasp rippled through the room. Capital. Charlie fought the urge to tug at his cravat. He'd be auctioned for pocket change after the duke's opening bid.
The rest of the ladies approached the dais; their shouts punctuated the air as the bids came faster and faster. Fifty-five. Sixty. Sixty-five. Seventy. Even his grace had the grace to look a bit surprised. Charlie watched with a mixture of amusement and horror as Oliver Townsende, the seventh Duke of Markingham, was auctioned to Lady Jane Peterson for the impressive sum of ninety-nine pounds. By far the highest bid of the evening.
Charlie set his jaw. It could only get worse. Townsende strode past on his way out. Charlie gave the bloke a commiserating smile. Good man, Townsende. The poor chap had been the grandson of a duke when Charlie met him at Eton years back — an impressive claim to Quality to be sure — but Oliver had no claim to the title until his cousin had got himself shot recently.
That was neither here nor there at the moment. Charlie took a deep breath. He was next. Might as well get this unpleasant task over with.
He squared his shoulders and stepped up to the dais.
"And finally, we have Mr. Charles Holloway, second son of the fourth earl of Ashbourne, brother to the current earl." The auctioneer's voice echoed off the walls. "Let the bidding commence."CHAPTER 2
"Might we begin with an opening bid of five pounds, ladies?" the auctioneer called. "What am I offered for this fine gentleman?"
Silence filled the air. Then a giggle or two. In the shadows, Timothy and Michael nudged each other.
Charlie shifted on his feet. Where the hell was Annie?
That little imp would pay for this if he ended up being auctioned for a ha'penny. And after the duke's high bid, a ha'penny would probably make the papers. Charlie fought his shudder.
"Five pounds?" the auctioneer repeated.
Charlie held his breath. Would anyone bid five pounds? If Tim could command twenty-five, surely he could rate a mere five.
Charlie narrowed his eyes and scanned the room. No sign of Annie.
"Five. Five! Do I hear ten?"
Charlie let out his breath slowly. Thank God someone had bid five. He couldn't see much in the crowd from his new vantage point. The candles blazing in the chandelier above his head cast the rest of the room into shadows. He hadn't even seen who had bid the five. At least the ha'penny scare was past. He should be thankful for that much. But ten pounds? Would he rate as much as ten? The crowd, what he could see of it, appeared to be rapidly thinning after the duke's auction. For an awful moment, Charlie imagined the entire lot of ladies streaming toward the doors.
"Ten. Ten! Will someone bid twenty?"
Charlie blinked. Twenty? Now that was something. Perhaps he might even best Tim at this rate. He peered into the recesses of the room, trying to catch of glimpse of the lady who had made that bid.
"Twenty! Shall there be twenty-five?" The auctioneer's voice rose in excitement.
Charlie lifted his chin, allowing a bit of a smile to play across his lips. Twenty-five. How do you like that? He was about to tie his younger brother and he without a bride to do the bidding. Ah, he'd be ribbing Tim when he saw him later for certain.
"Twenty-five! Excellent ladies. What about thirty?"
Thirty? Charlie blinked. Thirty was more than he'd hoped for. Would there be a lady who would bid as much as thirty? Surely not.
"Thirty? Anyone? Anyone? We have a bid of twenty-five pounds, ladies."
Just then, Charlie spotted her. Annie. She stood near the doorway, frantically whispering to someone just outside and she was ... bidding. On him.
"Thirty!" Annie called in her high sure voice. "You have thirty here."
Capital. He'd never live it down. His own sister-in-law was bidding on him in order to keep him from being disgraced. But he'd be disgraced nonetheless. Everyone knew Annie was Jordan's affianced bride. And the fact that she'd asked Charlie to do this and was now the one bidding smacked of charity. She felt sorry for him. Perhaps the room was completely empty after all.
"Thirty-five?" the announcer called and Annie's voice piped up once again. "Forty!"
Wait a tick. Someone was bidding against her. So why did she continue to bid? It made no sense. Then again, many of Annie's shenanigans made no sense to him. He glanced toward her and saw again the frantic whispering with someone just outside his line of vision. Most likely it was Jordan. His older brother was probably encouraging her so he could tease Charlie about it later. Just like Jordan to prolong Charlie's suffering for a laugh. The two brothers were only a year apart in age and had loved nothing more than to tease each other endlessly while growing up.
Charlie set his jaw. Very well. Let Jordan have his joke. Meanwhile Charlie was fetching nearly fifty pounds. It would serve Jordan right if that blighter ended up winning and had to hand over that sum for the honor of his own brother's company at a ball. The jest would be at Jordan's expense then, wouldn't it?
"Fifty!" came a voice from the opposite end of the ballroom. A rustling in the crowd marked the lady's advancement through those who were left. She strode forward until Charlie could make out her face.
Lady Lenora Harcourt. He'd met her a few times at various social events. She was a widow. A wealthy one. Rumor had it she'd just broken off with her last lover. Apparently she was in search of another. Her deceased husband, Lord Geoffrey Harcourt, was known for his prowess at investing large sums of money, some of which he'd invested for the King. He'd been awarded a viscountcy for his efforts. Aside from being a viscountess, Lady Lenora was quite beautiful and sought after. Why on earth was she bidding on him?
"I bid fifty pounds," Lady Lenora repeated, a slow smile on her face.
So much blunt. Charlie doubted even Jordan would risk losing that much for a joke. Charlie glanced back over at Annie. She appeared to be in an excited conversation with whoever was behind the wall. There was much gesticulating and raised voices.
"Well, Miss Andrews?" the auctioneer's voice rose. "Do you intend to best the current bid of fifty pounds?"
After a bit more excited chatter, Annie faced the auctioneer. "Yes, sir. I do. Sixty pounds!"
Charlie groaned and fought the urge to bury his face in his hands. Honestly? Annie was going to continue this farce? Perhaps she was merely trying to drive up Lady Harcourt's bid so that she might gain more money for the Society. If that was her game, she was also driving him mad with it. He'd give the charity fifty pounds right now if he could just get the hell off this dais.
"Sixty-five," came Lady Harcourt's answer.
Charlie glanced at her, raising his brow, allowing the hint of a smile to play along his lips. Flattering, that. To be the subject of such a beautiful woman's interest. Even he didn't think his company was worth sixty-five pounds.
Lady Harcourt inclined her head toward him in the barest acknowledgement that she'd seen his smile. The lady wanted to win this auction. Intriguing, really.
The discussion between Annie and the wall became even more animated before Annie disappeared behind it. What was she doing? The auctioneer's voice came again. "Miss Andrews, do you care to bid?"
Charlie raised his gaze to the frescoed ceiling. Please, Annie, stop.
Annie popped her head out from behind the wainscoting and took a deep breath. "I bid seventy pounds."
"Seventy-five!" Lady Harcourt didn't miss a beat.
This time, there was much ruffling and shuffling behind the wall before a lady's form emerged beside Annie. The lovely silhouette marched straight toward the dais, her light green skirts rustling.
"Oh for heaven's sake," Annie's conspirator called as she practically stomped forward. "I bid one-hundred-fifty pounds even!"
The air was sucked from the room. The lady came to stand just before Charlie, her arms folded serenely across her chest, a look of extreme antagonism on her face as she glared at Lady Lenora.
Charlie's eyes widened. The bidder was no stranger. That blond hair. Those light blue eyes. Those silver spectacles. He'd met this particular lady a handful of times, and now it made sense why she'd been consorting with Annie. For Annie herself had introduced the two of them. She was Annie's closest friend.
"I said I bid one-hundred-fifty pounds," Miss Frances Birmingham repeated to the auctioneer. "And I expect an end to this."CHAPTER 3
"Oh, Frances, you were absolutely marvelous!" Annie declared the next afternoon over tea. She reached across the delicate rosewood table that adorned Frances's mother's drawing room and squeezed her friend's pale hand.
Frances pressed her other hand to her chest to quiet the thumping of her heart. "I'm glad you think so, Annie, but I'm quite afraid you're the only one."
"Nonsense," Annie replied. "You were magnificent. Why, when I think of how Lady Harcourt turned on her heel and left ..." Annie giggled. "Well, it was just perfect, that's all. She wasn't about to match your one-hundred-fifty pounds."
Frances lifted her teacup with a shaking hand. "Do you think ... Do you think Mr. Holloway was ... surprised?"
Annie's bright brown eyes flashed. "Charlie? Oh, why of course he was. He wasn't expecting it, naturally, but I heard Jordan say last night that Charlie was already taunting Tim and Michael over getting the highest bid."
Frances smiled at that. She let out her breath. "Oh, I'm so glad. I was worried he'd be disappointed that Lady Lenora didn't win."
Annie slapped at her hand. "Don't be ridiculous. How could anyone prefer Lady Lenora to you?"
Frances pushed up her spectacles on her nose. "You're lovely and loyal, Annie. For that I am truly grateful."
Annie clapped her hands. "Yes, well, I'm just glad the animals will receive much-needed money, of course." She winked at Frances. "And if the bachelor auction also happens to have the benefit of bringing you and Mr. Holloway together in a timely fashion, well, so much the better."
It was not as if the two friends hadn't planned for this. They'd spent the last fortnight alternately preparing for Annie's impending nuptials to the Earl of Ashbourne and plotting how exactly they would bring Mr. Holloway up to scratch for Frances.
"I still have no idea in the world how you were able to convince the ladies of the ton to agree to participate in a scandalous bachelor auction," Frances said.
Annie laughed. "Oh, I've learned when a charity is involved, many things are forgiven," she responded. "And it didn't hurt to have the backing of the Marquis of Colton and the Earl of Ashbourne."
"Of course not." Frances laughed.
"Now, the Wilmingtons' ball is tomorrow night, and you and Charlie will attend together," Annie said. "We must discuss your gown. I expect he'll call on you the day after. You'll see each other a handful of times, and oh, Frances, wouldn't it be wonderful if you two were married before Christmastide as well?"
Frances's eyes nearly popped from her skull. She choked on her sip of tea. Placing the delicate china cup on the table next to her, she gave her head a hard shake. "Pardon? Did you just say that we might be married before Christmastide?"
Excerpted from A Secret Affair by Valerie Bowman. Copyright © 2013 Valerie Bowman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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