Banking heiress Ursula Nunes has lived her life on the fringes of Philadelphia’s upper class. Her Jewish heritage means she’s never quite been welcomed by society’s elite…and her quick temper has never helped, either.
A faux engagement to the scion of the mid-Atlantic’s most storied family might work to repair her rumpled reputation and gain her entrée to the life she thinks she wants…if she can ignore the way her “betrothed” makes her feel warm all over and stay focused on her goal.
She’s his ticket out…
Former libertine John Thaddeus “Jay” Truitt is hardly the man to teach innocent women about propriety. Luckily, high society has little to do with being proper and everything to do with identifying your foe’s temptation—an art form Jay mastered long ago. A broken engagement will give him the perfect excuse to run off to Europe and a life of indulgence.
But when the game turns too personal, all bets are off…
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
Publisher’s Note: Appetites & Vices deals with topics some readers may find difficult, including substance abuse and mental illness.
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June 1841, Centerville, Delaware
Throw one chair when you're eleven and you're a pariah for life.
Ursula ran her finger along the edge of the gilt-wood console table in the Truitts' vestibule, alone. The music and conversation of the rollicking party in the adjoining rooms wafted through the empty space.
Her presence at the soirée was secured out of obligation — humiliating, but at least being the sole child of a banking baron provided some benefits. Loans were hard to come by in this economy, especially in Delaware, so if the husbands had any say in the guest list, the Nunes name was etched on an invitation.
Bollocks. Her father always complained that parties were frivolous and boring, but if she wanted to see Hugo, this was the place to be. It was time for him to propose. True, the season had hardly begun, but if he did as promised, the night's outing wouldn't be a complete waste.
Her chin steady, she ascended the hosts' grand double staircase. Almost as impressive as the one in her father's house, though a bit old-fashioned.
She shoved a crème puff into her mouth to ease her rumbling stomach. Perhaps she should take one more gander at the refreshment table and swipe a few more treats. Last time they'd served the most delicious baked apples, and pound cake with sugared berries, and fruit dipped in chocolate. She closed her eyes at the memory.
Chocolate. Ambrosia had nothing on chocolate. With strawberries. Divine. Later — Hugo first, sweets later.
Marriage was the only prudent course of action. He was her best friend, and she was his, and if they didn't marry each other, they'd have to marry strangers. Or, worse, no one would marry her and when her father died she'd be all alone. Besides, they had a pact.
She hitched her skirts and crept into the upstairs hall.
Hugo Middleton's familiar form slumped so low he covered more chair rail than wall. His shoulder rested against a portrait of some long-dead Truitt ancestor. The frame was already crooked. She'd have to fix that before they left.
She tapped his shoulder. No need to beat around the bush. It was time. If he did it now people would congratulate her, act friendly towards her, smile at her, pretend she belonged so for once, she didn't have to tiptoe over glass. "Are you going to talk to my father tonight or tomorrow?"
"Ursula." Hugo stuttered her name, his pale eyes wide.
She blinked. Was that displeasure on his face? Unlike everyone else, Hugo was never unhappy to see her. Unease scalded her stomach. "You need to ask him. It's time."
"Now, Ursula, you know I adore you, have always adored you, and if there was any possible way ..." The stuttering increased as he grasped her hand.
Clammy. She wrinkled her nose but stifled her distaste. She'd buy him some talc.
He began again. "My family's business has had some setbacks. The Middleton fortune and name aren't what they once were. My parents are in a bit of financial trouble."
The man had to be joking. Money? This was about money? Money was easy. She could dance in relief. Money was what the Nuneses did best. The whispered criticisms involved them having too much, not too little.
"Hugo, my family is the wealthiest in Delaware. Our Dutch and British holdings can charge whatever interest we desire, and my father will do anything I want so we could help your parents, purchase Middleton Carriers. My father's always looking to expand, and ..."
She bit her lip. Should she say it? Would it be rude? Her father said marriage required trust and honesty. And Hugo loved his own parents so he'd want the truth. Ursula fiddled with the emerald-eyed lion's head on her bracelet, one of her mother's favorites. "Now I don't want to appear forward or ill-mannered or what have you, but Middleton's model is outdated. Have you looked at rail transport? The steam engine is the way of the future."
Hugo mopped his brow. The man could certainly sweat. Not his most becoming quality, but no one was perfect — she was far from it, no matter how hard she worked. Besides, Hugo was close to ideal, at least for her. He never mocked her, was kind to her animals, never told her how frizzled her hair was or that her gowns weren't the right color or cut. Besides her father, Hugo was the only person who let her breathe.
"We can't. I know we had plans for our mutual protection, but my parents forbid it. I'm sorry. It's not just the business, it's my father. He wants — needs, really — a judgeship, a Federal one — a circuit court one. We're going to Philadelphia. My parents need me to marry someone who ..." Hugo mumbled the end of his sentence into his sleeve.
Her heart galloped away, dragging all hopes of surviving adulthood with it.
What did she do wrong this time? Was it the chair again? Or the chafing dish? She'd tried so hard. She'd behaved. She'd followed most of the rules too. And who could remember what words were impolite or how to fold one's napkin anyway? What more could people want? Her throat was tight as if she'd swallowed an entire biscuit — one made of lead.
"Someone who what?" Was that a catch in her voice? Blazes, Nuneses didn't cry. Even when they lost. Crying was weakness and people in her circle filleted the weak for breakfast.
"Ursula, I'm sorry. I really am. I adore you. You're still the only woman I'd ever want to marry." He fumbled with his cuff. "But your father is, well, not Christian."
Bollocks, double bollocks, and blast.
Why did that have to be such an issue? It didn't matter. It shouldn't matter. Why was her money good enough, but not her? She clenched her fists, her nails biting into her skin.
She could convince him. No one could argue like she could. That's what her father said, and her father was always right, except when he said no to her, which was almost never.
She straightened her shoulders.
"You'd never notice. We never spend time with other Jews. I mean, we live in Delaware." She shook as she spoke, unable to halt her mouth or body. Curls spilled loose from their holdings and flopped in her face. "We see family, I suppose, but rarely. My father takes me to parties and the opera, not synagogue or church. We're too amusing for that. And we pray before most people wake. You could sleep through it."
She knit her fingers. It made sense. She and Hugo made sense. Wasn't that enough?
"Ursula, I can't, I just really can't." Hugo's eyes darted in her direction one last time as he fled down the stairs, his coattails flapping, before the sob-like gasp escaped her lips.
Jay Truitt leaned against the doorframe and downed the remainder of a glass of champagne, his third, not enough to sleep, but enough to loosen the garrote around his gut. The air was thick as tar in his parents' house.
The vest was a mistake. He tugged at the garment. At least he wasn't old and stiff and in need of a corset like half his friends.
Why did his mother invite him home anyway? He was a failure. The woman's two-month experiment was pointless. He might as well leave instead of waiting around for his father to take charge. Jay gulped. No way he'd survive the man's "cure" again.
He patted under every surface in the second-floor guest room for the third time. He could've sworn he'd hidden a stash behind the mirror. Dash it. This is what his parents wrought. Two years he'd held himself together, but the moment he returned home a single craving ensorcelled his senses — too many people, too many rules, too many memories.
At least his perch permitted him a front row seat to a rather stimulating conversation and confirmation he wasn't the only miserable guest. Bravo. He should toast the unfortunate couple.
Poor, poor Hugo. He and Ursula Nunes would never work. The Middleton name, though old as his own, lacked cachet and finances. The family's holdings were decimated when the American banks crashed and the Middletons lacked the political pull for Hugo's father's ambitions. His own father, the fourth John Thaddeus Truitt, gossiped about the whole affair the other night. Perhaps he should've listened harder.
Or not. The Middletons and their problems were dull — Delaware dull.
The lady in question was another matter. How old was she again? Twenty, twenty-one? She couldn't have been more than fourteen the last time she'd been in his house for a party.
Ursula Nunes was all grown-up now. Big blue eyes, thick lashes, cascading blonde curls, adorable pert mouth, any fetching feature one could want. Her jaw and brow were a bit wide, but no one was perfect.
Besides, what made little Miss Nunes interesting and, more, delicious — was her figure, on complete display in a snug-bodice gown cut to show her shoulders, collarbone and much more. Like her impressive décolletage — two crème puffs set atop a flute of plum wine. A bit much for some people's taste, but only the boring frowned upon excess.
Her lack of interest in anyone else's money or status was a bit refreshing, actually, as was her confidence. But for Hugo? Poor, poor Hugo. She'd never do, unless the man aimed for a heart attack and early grave. Everyone in Delaware knew the Middletons were so stodgy Puritans appeared hedonistic by comparison.
Jay clasped both hands over his mouth to muffle his laughter. All he could picture was the pushy blonde next to Hugo at Lower Brandywine Presbyterian Church in scarlet or something equally inappropriate. She'd probably critique the Gospel.
He peered out the cracked guest room door. Her looks really were a waste. If she'd been fortunate, she'd have been born docile-but-plain or at least a sedate pretty. Society rewarded conformity. The woman was doomed. Ursula Nunes was a four-time deviant. Her Jewishness, her wealth, her near-aggressive beauty, and her charm — or lack thereof — made her almost hopeless.
Jay paused as she wrapped her arms tighter around her body, clutching her elbows. Her shoulders shook, but she made no sound.
"What to do, what to do?" She repeated the phrase as she stalked back and forth between the bannister and the wall, half muttering, half projecting.
He blinked. Good lord, she was bouncing. The puffed sleeves slid down from her slender shoulders. Jay swallowed. It'd been too long. Way too long. Why had he sworn off women again? Whomever decided that their collars should lay beneath their shoulders should be elected president, or better, be given his own riverboat.
"Philadelphia. I have to get to Philadelphia. If I can talk to his parents, I'll make them understand. They'll have to let us marry if I argue it right. I just need to get into the parties. How hard can that really be?" She nibbled on her fingernails, diluting her attractiveness a smidge.
He held his breath to fight his raging case of the snickers.
The woman was delusional, but intriguing. Not even her father with all his money would be able to secure the right invitations outside of Wilmington.
And arguing her position to Hugo's parents? Yes, a perfect way to display her social aptitude. Jay swallowed his chortle. If Ursula Nunes thought she could convince those self-important snobs of anything, she was the one who belonged in an asylum. Not him.
He cracked the door open a touch more. Her eyelashes were wet, but her cheeks remained dry. Most people, not just women, would've withered in her shoes, and yet she still fought. Fascinating.
An idea formed — a terrible, awful, wonderful idea.
His mother's words echoed in his head.
You're more than you think, Jay. All you need is a bit of stability, perhaps a wife. Come home. If you can show your father you've changed, he'll trust you and we can be a family again.
As if his father would ever trust him. The man found fault with the tone of his cry when he emerged from the womb. As for a wife — he was never doing that again. If his mother only knew ...
Jay inhaled through his nose. If the scheme turned out, perhaps his parents would leave him alone. As for Miss Nunes, well, he'd do his best. Maybe he could give her a few pointers.
He squinted through the crack. Was she still muttering nonsense to herself? More than a few pointers. Not the worst occupation for his mind.
Even if he couldn't fix her, watching her and Hugo's drama would be decent distraction for the next two months. He glanced back at the mirror. If he wasn't in his father's house there'd be less temptation.
Yes, the next moments held quite a bit of promise. He just had to execute. Time to turn on the charm — to be the old Jay, the one who collected multiple garters at every party — one last time.
Glass in hand, he swung the door open until it cracked against the wall. Ursula jumped. He centered himself in the doorway and settled into a lean.
"Good evening, Miss Nunes." He lifted the flute in her direction. "You probably don't remember me. I'm Jay. This is my parents' house and I have a proposal for you."CHAPTER 2
Had he been listening the entire time? Ursula's cheeks burned. Jay, Jay Truitt. John was his real name, wasn't it? John Thaddeus-the-something, like his father. He hadn't been home in years.
There was gossip about him, and not the good kind. She frowned. Something about him being a drunkard? He was certainly staring at her with a particularly foolish grin — probably with a devastating quip at her expense right on the tip of his tongue. As if she needed that. The backs of her eyes ached.
Time to get rid of him.
"I don't do business with intoxicated individuals." She pointed at his empty glass in case he couldn't understand.
School. That was the bent of the rumors. Well, actually, schools. Plural. He'd been kicked out of multiple schools, quite the feat for someone with the Truitt name and legacy.
"I'm not drunk." He lifted the glass, jiggling it. "I've had two of these, maybe three."
Society was a mystery. This man was celebrated while she, and her mother before her, were ostracized over a few too many beads and some innocuous verbal stumbles?
"I can handle three. I'm not a small man." As if to emphasize his point, he straightened his back and stepped towards her.
No, he wasn't small. She was a decent height herself, yet he was at least a head taller and in the chandelier light, much more handsome than he'd been when they'd last crossed paths. His chestnut hair, full and thick, was shorter than fashionable and without sideburns.
Not lean, not bulky, Jay was just, well, large, like a Great Dane. With a wolf's attitude. He certainly was no Saint Bernard bent on rescuing innocents, though who'd rescue her?
Ursula swallowed. His eyes were something else. What color were they? Green, brown, gray, all three? A fascinating mixture.
"Still, it just wouldn't be fair." She hugged herself. Maybe she'd shrink herself down to nothing and he'd leave her be.
His smirk deepened. Perhaps not. She gulped.
"What wouldn't be fair?" One long stride and he was mere feet away.
Do not be intimidated, Ursula, do not be intimidated.
"Taking advantage of a poor drunkard." She brushed past him, her sleeve grazing the brass leaves at the bottom of a sconce.
Her lungs pumped her ribs against her corset boning. She needed to find her father. She'd convince him to take her to Philadelphia. He'd get her into the parties. Money was money. Everyone had a price. Where to stay, that was another matter. No, she was getting ahead of herself. First thing was to get rid of Jay Truitt.
The last thing she needed was to be humiliated by some smug, spoiled profligate. His type adored her for "pranks." She couldn't stomach another "accidental" spill down her bosom or wine in her hair after what happened with Hugo.
And the metal biscuit was back, cutting off her air, along with a burning behind her eyes.
Think Ursula, think.
She grasped for a barb from the gossip she could hurl to repel him. "Isn't that why you were asked to leave, where was it, Harvard? And then Yale?"
Jay strolled over and leaned against the railing, his body so close the wool of his frock coat kissed the silk of her sleeve.
"My parents would've preferred that." He stretched his arms above his head in the most undignified manner possible. "Harvard's dean didn't appreciate my friendship with his daughter, and Yale's with his niece. Fortunately, Brown's dean was an only child with sons. To be fair, my marks weren't anything to write home about either."
Jay's arm brushed against hers again and she shivered.
When she caught his eye, he cocked his head as if he dared her to react, to move away, or worse, move closer. Like she'd give him either satisfaction.
"It's a wonder you even have a degree." Ursula scrunched her nose. "So, a dullard, not a drunkard, and libertine to boot. I'm not sure if that's an improvement."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Appetites & Vices"
Copyright © 2019 Hannah Singerman.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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