“Merry, intelligent, and wholly satisfying.”USA Today
"Sizzles with sensuality." - Publishers Weekly
“Delicious and suspenseful.” Kirkus Reviews
A spirited lady facing spinsterhood. A common man with a noble mission. And a surprise that just might be waiting for them under the mistletoe in Kiss Me At Christmas by Valerie Bowman.
Bow Street Runner Daffin Oakleaf abhors Christmas. Carol singing and holiday cheer only remind him of a dark time. When a close friend calls on him for help, Daffin is happy to capitalize on the distraction. But when he learns the lovely Lady Regina is the one in danger, he’s to become bodyguard to the captivating woman...
Regina has one mission: to find a night of passion in the arms of a gentleman. Considered firmly on the shelf, Regina has given up on marriagebut that doesn’t mean she wants to be denied the pleasure married ladies experience. Daffin has long captured her attention…and when a threat calls him to her side, the sparks between them ignite. But how can a hired bodyguard find his way into Regina’s noble heart?
About the Author
Valerie Bowman grew up in Illinois with six sisters (she’s number seven) and a huge supply of historical romance novels. After a cold and snowy stint earning a degree in English with a minor in history at Smith College, she moved to Florida the first chance she got. Valerie now lives in Jacksonville with her family including her mini-schnauzers, Huckleberry and Violet. When she’s not writing, she keeps busy reading, traveling, or vacillating between watching crazy reality TV and PBS.
Valerie is the author of the Playful Brides series, including The Untamed Earl and Never Trust a Pirate.
Read an Excerpt
London, December 1818
Lady Regina Haversham's thirtieth birthday was precisely one month away, which didn't leave her much time to lose her virginity. Not that she wanted it lost. She wanted to know where it went and choose to whom she gave the dratted thing.
Her coach came to a stop in front of the offices of the Bow Street Runners in central London, and she drew in a deep, unsteady breath. She pressed her hands deeper into the white fur muff that sat atop her lap and willed her pounding heart to slow its nervous beat. Christmastide was her favorite time of year. She was in high spirits, but she was also as nervous as a young lady making her debut on her way to see the queen. This particular outing had every chance to end in disaster.
She glanced out the window. She probably should have hired a hackney. It would have been less conspicuous than her uncle's resplendent coach. There were already several onlookers staring up at the black-lacquered conveyance with the Duke of Colchester's seal on the side. She glanced down at her clothing. No doubt her ensemble was too elegant for marching into the offices of the best private investigative team in London, but she had no other clothing to wear, and this particular message was best delivered in person. She didn't know Daffin Oakleaf's home address, and she hardly thought a note to him for what she had in mind would be appropriate. No. Regardless of the stares, she had to see him in person.
Regina had settled on the perfect birthday gift to herself. She would spend the night with a man. Not just any man. The finest candidate. One who had the face and body of a Greek god. Thirty years old. Tall, fit, and handsome. Blond hair and green eyes that held a twinkle she found irresistible. She'd met him last summer at her uncle's estate. Her family had been gathered there for the unfortunate purpose of her cousin, the marquess's, funeral. John had been murdered, and inappropriate or not, the man Regina had come to covet was the Bow Street Runner who'd helped investigate his murder.
She hadn't seen Daffin since he'd left the estate that hot July day taking away the two murderers in shackles. Rarely a day passed since that Regina didn't think of him. She'd read about him in the paper, too. Lately, there'd been a series of articles in the Times focusing on his exploits. He'd caught criminal after criminal and, according to her cousin Nicole, made hefty bounties doing it. Now that Regina's period of mourning was over and her uncle was forcing the issue of her marriage, Regina was here to ask Daffin Oakleaf, legendary Bow Street Runner, to make mad, passionate love to her.
Her stomach performed a somersault. Could nerves make one physically ill? She suspected they could. Suspected hers would. She winced. It wouldn't do to cast up her accounts in front of the man. That certainly wouldn't attract him.
She glanced at her maid, who sat on the seat facing her, back ramrod straight. If the proper young woman knew what Regina was thinking, no doubt she'd be scandalized. Precisely why Regina had said as little as possible about their outing today. Genevieve hadn't asked many questions. Thank heavens.
The coachman opened the door and Regina took one more deep breath. "Wait here," she said to Genevieve. "I shouldn't be long."
After all, how long could an indecent proposal possibly take?CHAPTER 2
Daffin Oakleaf pushed himself away from his office desk and scrubbed both hands across his face. He was tired. Bone tired. He hated Christmastide. He'd been running himself ragged chasing a particularly nasty thief across London for the last fortnight. Daffin had nearly had him, or so he thought, when a clue he'd been pursuing had turned to nothing. He was back to the start of his investigation, and severely out of sorts.
Daffin loved his work. It was perfect for him, and it had made him a wealthy man, but days like this were frustrating as hell. He much preferred to be taking down criminals and delivering them to gaol, instead of pacing his office with little to go on while they roamed free.
He was obsessed with each one of his cases, but this one kept him up at night. This case made his blood boil. A child had been injured by the bloody thief, and if there was one thing Daffin couldn't countenance, it was a grown man being violent with a child. He would track down this monster if it was the last thing he did.
Most of Daffin's investigations were done with the promise of a hefty purse at the end, but he was doing this one for free. He always took on a case or two for charity at Christmastide. It was the least he could do. Not to mention it kept his mind from the blasted season. Focusing on his cases made the holiday easier to ignore. Easier to forget.
He pulled a notebook from his inner coat pocket and scanned the words he'd written on the case so far. Perhaps he'd missed something, some detail that would finally lead him down the right path to Henry Vickery.
"Oakleaf!" came the voice of Paul, the secretary, who sat out in the offices' main room and fielded inquiries from people who came in off the street.
"I'm busy," Daffin called back, not in any mood to be taken away from his case. It was probably someone else who'd read about him in the paper and wanted to make his acquaintance. The papers hounded him of late. One reporter in particular. Mr. H. J. Hancock.
The man seemed obsessed with following Daffin's cases. Week after week, for months now Daffin had been mentioned in his articles. The stories made him sound like a bloody hero. They described how he chased down bad men in the dark of night, vaulting over walls, climbing up to rooftops, and taking more than one bullet. He'd never have answered the reporter's bloody questions if he'd known the man would go and write things like that. Being a hero wasn't Daffin's purpose. Never had been. He did his work to put the scum of society behind bars. To get evil people off the street. To spare their future victims.
Daffin had entertained Hancock's interrogation thinking it might help bring in tips if the public read about his work. Instead, the articles made him sound like a blasted knight in shining armor. They embarrassed the hell out of him. Ladies came traipsing into the office in search of a glimpse of him; men sought his company to ask him idiotic questions. Daffin had quickly reached the end of his patience for such things. His life's work was not a novelty, and he was not an animal in a zoological garden.
"I think ye're gonna wanna take this one, Oakleaf," came Paul's chipper reply from the common room.
"Damn it," Daffin muttered under his breath, flipping closed his notebook and shoving it back into his pocket. Paul found the scores of ladies coming to fawn over Daffin endlessly amusing. No doubt the younger man was merely ribbing him again.
Daffin stood, ran his hand down his red vest to straighten it, and strode out his office door and down the short corridor to the common room. He would curtly and firmly dismiss whoever it was and get back to the business of reading his notes.
He stepped into the common room, a cavernous area that smelled like a mixture of lemon polish and old papers, with high ceilings and wood beams. He scanned the space. Empty. "I'm not amused," he said to the secretary. "Interrupt me again and I'll have your hide."
He turned on his heel to return to his office when a soft female voice caught his attention. "Daffin."
He recognized that voice.
Slowly, he turned back around, his heart thumping beneath his vest.
She stepped from behind one of the large wooden columns near Paul's desk. She wore an emerald-green velvet pelisse with white fur at the collar and wrists, and her hands were tucked into a white fur muff. Her hair was hidden beneath a green velvet hat that also had white fur trim, but he knew her hair was glossy and the color of black ink. Her eyes, blinking at him from beneath the brim of her expensive hat, were bright blue. A smile that had haunted his dreams for many a night rested on her ruby lips.
Lady Regina Haversham. The powerful Duke of Colchester's niece, and the cousin of his good friend Mark Grimaldi. A gorgeous, rich lady of the ton. One with whom he'd flirted outrageously when he'd met her in Surrey last summer. They'd been drawn to each other, could barely take their eyes from each other when they shared the same space, a fact that was entirely inappropriate because at the time the woman had been in mourning for her cousin.
Lady Regina had worked with Daffin and Grimaldi, along with Grimaldi's wife, Nicole, to discover the murderers and bring them to justice. Then Daffin had left. Paid handsomely by the duke for his assistance in solving his only son's murder, Daffin had gone back to his life in London chasing down criminals, and left Lady Regina Haversham to dwell in her countryside mansion with her happy, loving family, fancy servants, and gobs of money.
There may have been an instant connection between them, but Lady Regina was strictly off-limits. Not only was she far above him in class and breeding, but she was his good friend's cousin. Daffin highly doubted that Mark Grimaldi, the newly minted Marquess of Coleford and the Secretary of the Home Office, would look kindly on his blueblood cousin being courted by a Bow Street Runner. He and Grim might be friends, but their friendship didn't make up for the impossible gulf between their social ranks. It never would.
Daffin's flirting with Lady Regina had been harmless, however, and quickly over. In the months since, he had tried not to think of her, albeit unsuccessfully. Now here she was, standing in his offices on Bow Street as if he'd conjured her from his imagination. She smelled like apples. He would never forget her scent. It wafted across the space to him, and he briefly closed his eyes as he breathed it in.
Lady Regina cleared her throat and glanced self-consciously at Paul. "I mean ... Mr. Oakleaf."
Paul turned to Daffin with eyebrows lifted.
Daffin glared at the lad before reverting his attention to the lady. He offered her a formal bow. "To what do I owe the pleasure, my lady?"
Her eyes darted about the room. She bit her lip. "I need to ... I ... have a proposal for you." Was it his imagination, or did her voice shake?
Daffin rubbed the back of his neck. He had an idea what her "proposal" would be. Like her cousin Nicole, who'd worked with him years ago, perhaps the lady had taken it in her head to become the next female Bow Street Runner, if unofficially. Nicole had mentioned to him a time or two that Lady Regina expressed interest in the work.
He shook his head. "My apologies, my lady, but we're not hiring at the moment."
Lady Regina cocked her head to the side. Her lips twitched. "I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Oakleaf, but that is not why I'm here."
He frowned. "It's not?"
"No." She shook her head again, and he was captivated by the blue glimmer in her eyes. Something about the way she looked at him made him feel ... wanted ... admired. He remembered that feeling from Surrey, as if they were both in on the same jest.
"Then ... why are you here?" he asked. She'd surprised him. His voice was more curt than he'd meant it to be.
"As I said, I have a proposal for you, but I'd prefer to share the details with you ... privately."
"Privately?" Daffin echoed, rubbing the back of his neck again. It prickled with something akin to suspicion. Something about the way she spoke, the way she looked at him, told him he should be on his guard. Years of dealing with criminals and liars had taught him how to accurately read a person's movements and gestures, and Lady Regina's were telling him loudly that he should be prepared for trouble. Just what sort of trouble remained to be seen.
He took a deep breath and decided to invite trouble back to his office.CHAPTER 3
Regina watched the look on Daffin's face go from slightly annoyed to confused to suspicious. The man had absolutely no idea what she intended to say. Good. Precisely the way she wanted it. The less he knew, the more honest a reaction she would get from him.
He looked as decadently handsome as he had the last time they'd met. His broad shoulders were encased in a crisp white shirt behind his dark red vest, his light hair was slicked back, his green eyes glimmered with intelligence. There was always a smile lurking near his lips, but she'd got the distinct impression that the ubiquitous smile was a veneer. His devil-may-care attitude hid something darker beneath. Something she wanted to discover.
"Yes ... privately." She glanced at the young man behind the desk, who seemed entranced by her exchange with Daffin. The clerk's dark eyes darted back and forth between the two of them as he followed every word. All the more reason to speak with Daffin alone.
"By all means." Daffin waved his hand in the direction from which he'd come. Excellent. He was inviting her to his office. She hoped it had a door. A nice, big, thick one.
She preceded him down a short corridor before he guided her to a room that did indeed have a door. She entered and waited for Daffin to follow her inside, before pulling the door shut behind them. She glanced around. The office housed a large desk that occupied the center of the space with a dark brown leather chair in front of it. It smelled like him in here. A mix of soap and spice that made her want to bury her nose in his cravat. There was a map of London on the wall behind the desk and a mug filled with what looked to be black coffee on the desk next to a set of neatly stacked papers, a magnifying glass, and a ... dear God, was that a pistol?
"May I take your coat?" Daffin offered.
"No, I cannot stay long." Regina glanced toward the door. "My maid is waiting in the coach."
"Of course. Please, sit." He waited for her to lower herself to the chair before he walked around the large desk and took his own seat. He slid the pistol off the desk and into a drawer. "Hazard of the job."
"I understand," she replied with a nod.
Daffin searched her face. "I'd offer you a drink, but I'm afraid I don't have any tea."
"Do you have brandy?" she replied, her voice wavering slightly again.
His eyes widened, which made her smile. "You'd like a brandy?"
She sat up straight and cleared her throat. "Yes, please." Regina didn't know whether she cared for brandy, but Nicole drank it from time to time, and Regina had decided to be bold today. She might as well be bold in every way.
Daffin stood again and made his way to the sideboard in the corner, where he splashed brandy into two glasses. "I have a feeling I may need one as well," he said as he returned and handed her one of the snifters.
She slid one of her gloved hands out of the fur muff and took the glass from him, eyeing it carefully.
He went to sit behind the desk again and took a healthy sip from his own glass. His slightly stern visage gave nothing away. "It's good to see you, my lady."
Ah, small talk. Something at which she excelled. "Yes, it's been several months. It's good to see you, too." And then, "Please call me Regina as you did in Surrey."
He grinned at her and nodded. "I've heard your uncle's health has improved."
"Slightly, yes. We're thankful for every day we have with him." Uncle Edward had suffered from a disease of the lungs for many years. The fact that he was still alive was nothing short of a miracle. One she was grateful for, even though the older man was currently making her life miserable. The duke's ultimatum was part of the reason she was here today.
"How is your grandmother?" Daffin asked next.
Regina's grandmother, Lady Harriet, was a feisty old woman who said and did outrageous things, usually while waving her ubiquitous handkerchief in the air. She knew Regina fancied Daffin. However, she had no idea the lengths her granddaughter was willing to go to get him. "She is quite well, thank you." This time, Regina cleared her throat. "I've been reading about you in the paper."
An annoyed look flashed across Daffin's face. He took another drink. He didn't care for his publicity, apparently. Interesting, but not surprising. No doubt people with secrets disliked reporters nosing around in their affairs, and Regina suspected Daffin had a great many secrets. That was why he fascinated her so thoroughly. His ridiculous good looks didn't hurt, either.
"You said you have a proposal for me," he said finally, leveling a look at her that said he'd dispensed with the chitchat.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kiss Me at Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 June Third Enterprises, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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