Violet Somerset has always preferred a library to a ballroom, but to please her grandmother she agreed to one London season. With nothing to show for it but heartbreak, she’s reconciled to spinsterhood. Until a notorious rogue known as the Devil of Dare requests an introduction to her timid, gentle youngest sister, Hyacinth. Violet will do anything to stop the match—even if it means posing as Hyacinth herself . . .
Nicholas Balfour, the Earl of Dare, is enjoying the life of a rake far too much to take a wife. But he must keep his promise to his grandmother. He’ll simply choose the meekest bride he can find, install her at his estate, then carry on as before. Hyacinth sounds perfect—until he discovers that her sweet demeanor hides the tongue of a viper and the mind of a bluestocking . . .
As Violet’s ruse threatens to unravel, however, she may find the tables turned. Soon she may have no choice but to tolerate her handsome fiancé—or fall in love with him . . .
Praise for the Somerset Sisters series
“A slow burn with more implication and anticipation, but the teasing build-up is delightful.” —RT Book Reviews (4 Stars)
“Sharp, witty writing . . . her romances continue to be unusual and charming.” —All About Romance
About the Author
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London, November, 1817
Before she even crossed the threshold this evening, Violet Somerset knew there would be pain. She'd braced herself for gaping chest wounds, perhaps a severed limb or two, and a few pitiful but silent screams of agony. A graceful swoon would follow, and then the convulsive death throes of a love that had been hopeless from the start.
She hadn't expected any of it would be pleasant, but she'd hoped it would be quick.
It wasn't quick. It was death by a thousand cuts.
Dreadful way to die. Unseemly. Bloody.
Violet knew all about the blood. She'd seen a gruesome picture of death by a thousand cuts in an extraordinary book she'd found hidden in her grandmother's library. It was called ThePunishments of China1, and it was fascinating reading. A bit grisly, of course, and not at all proper for the eyes of an innocent young lady, but then nothing of any interest was. For her own part, Violet couldn't help but be intrigued by such an astonishingly creative approach to the thorny problem of crime and punishment.
Still, death by a thousand cuts wasn't at all the kind of thing one wanted to see at a dinner party.
Yet here she was, trapped between the fifth and final courses, and instead of a lovely pudding, Violet was facing a ghastly execution.
"I'd hoped for a happy marriage, of course. Doesn't every young lady? But it's so much lovelier than I ever dreamed it would be. I never imagined my husband could be my friend, but that's just what Lord Derrick is to me. My best friend."
Lady Honora looked splendid tonight, with her pink cheeks and her sweet brown eyes alight with happiness. A few weeks ago she'd become the Countess of Derrick, and if one could judge by her transcendent glow, her marriage suited her.
Violet met her dear friend's luminous smile with what was no doubt a sickly grimace. "How wonderful, Honora. I couldn't be happier for you and Lord Derrick."
Honora beamed at her and squeezed her limp fingers, but Violet could only manage a feeble twitch of her hand in return, rather like a bird with a broken wing trying to take flight.
"I don't mean to say he's just my friend, of course. He's, ah ... well, he's much more than that. It's difficult to put into words, but it's rather like ... like a dream has come to life before my eyes, except it's better than a dream, because it's so much more vivid and colorful than I dared imagine." The fetching pink flush on Honora's cheeks deepened. "I daresay Iris understands. Is that how you feel about Lord Huntington, Iris? As if he's a dream come to life?" Violet's elder sister Iris, who was recently married herself, was seated across the table from Honora. "I — that is, of course Lord Huntington and I are quite ... we do enjoy each other's ..." Iris glanced between Honora and Violet, bit her lip, and lapsed into a pained silence.
Poor Iris. It was a trifle awkward when one's sister was in love with one's best friend's husband. Violet roused herself to fill the uncomfortable pause. "It's truly wonderful, Honora. I couldn't be happier for you, and for Iris."
I never should have come here.
"I always thought Lord Derrick handsome." Honora cast a besotted glance at her husband, who was seated at the other end of the table. "But it's only since I married him that I think him the handsomest gentleman in the world."
Violet didn't follow Honora's gaze. She didn't need to look at Lord Derrick to know he was the handsomest gentleman in the world, and he was no less kind than he was handsome. "He's wonderfully handsome, Honora. Truly. I couldn't be happier for you."
"It's his eyes, I think. They're such a lovely brown. Don't you think he has remarkable eyes, Violet?"
Dear God. Compared to Honora's innocent brutality, Chinese torture felt like being nuzzled by a dozen purring kittens.
"They're wonderful, Honora, truly. I couldn't be happier about his eyes."
Iris choked on her wine, but Honora didn't seem to notice this strange reply. "Oh, I feel the same way. I adore his eyes. Well, not just his eyes."
Honora clapped her hand over her mouth, but not quickly enough to hide an uncharacteristically naughty giggle.
Violet raised her wineglass, but her hand was shaking so badly she couldn't bring it to her lips. Honora had always been the most decorous of the three of them, but Lord Derrick, it seemed, had transformed their modest friend into a shameless wanton.
"He has the loveliest lips. So firm, but gentle, too."
"He's always gentle, even when he's ... agitated."
She's a monster. A murderess.
"When I say agitated, I mean when he's —"
"Honora!" Iris's knife landed on her plate with a sharp crack. "I, ah ... I beg your pardon, dear, but who's that gentleman who's just come in?"
"Gentleman? What gentleman?" Honora, distracted at last, looked up as a tall gentleman in a dark blue coat and a lavishly embroidered scarlet waistcoat seated himself at the other end of the table. "Oh, that must be Lord Dare. He's a childhood friend of Lord Derrick's. He's just returned to London from a long stay on the Continent."
"Oh? How long?" Violet didn't much care how long Lord Dare had remained on the Continent, but she seized on it, desperate to turn the conversation away from Lord Derrick's firm lips.
"Two years. Lord Derrick told me Lord Dare despises England, and wouldn't be here now if he could have avoided it, but you see his black armband? His father passed away several weeks ago, so he was obliged to come home, to attend the memorial and assume the duties of the title. To hear Lord Derrick tell it, Lord Dare is quite put out by the whole business."
"Why, how rude of his father to spoil Lord Dare's prolonged Continental frolic. Pity he couldn't wait for more convenient timing to die." Such pointed sarcasm was a trifle unfair, and the words singed a bit as they rolled off Violet's tongue, but her misery had found an outlet at last, and Lord Dare never need know he was to be executed in her place.
Honora leaned forward and dropped her voice to a whisper. "From what I understand, he's had quite a frolic, indeed. The gossip has it he left a trail of broken hearts from Paris to Rome." She frowned. "It's terribly rude of him to arrive to dinner so late. For pity's sake, we're onto the dessert course already."
Violet watched as Lord Dare turned a charming smile on his dinner companions. Even from this distance she could see he was handsome, with a tall, lean frame, a sculpted jaw, and an overabundance of silky dark hair.
In Violet's experience — which was, admittedly, limited to one painful season of being laced into a tight corset and forced to endure the balls at Almack's — handsome gentlemen often hid staggeringly unhandsome ideas behind their charming smiles.
No, handsome gentlemen weren't to be trusted, and especially not this one — the waistcoat alone was proof of that. Lord Dare's clothes were in the height of fashion, of excellent quality and perfectly tailored, but a gentleman only wore a scarlet waistcoat embroidered with an intricate pattern of silver vines and masses of silver roses if he wished to be noticed.
Not that he needed the waistcoat for that. One was as likely to overlook a gentleman like Lord Dare as to forget to follow one breath with another.
His movements were graceful and confident, his smile easy, and if he was a trifle unkempt, it only added to his appeal. His unruly dark hair was a bit too long, his jaw not quite cleanly shaven, and his cravat just a shade off-center, the knot careless, as if it had been tied in a hurry. Despite the extravagant waistcoat, he looked almost as if he'd just rolled out of bed, and Violet hadn't the slightest doubt he had.
Not his own bed, either.
No, one wouldn't overlook Lord Dare, especially if one happened to be a lady. Not her, of course, but other ladies. Less sensible ones.
Violet raised her wineglass to her lips and took a healthy swallow. "So he's a rake. How shocking."
Honora smothered a laugh. "Now, Violet. How can you say so? You haven't even been introduced to him yet."
"No, and I'd just as soon keep it that way. I don't care for rakes."
They cared for her even less. There was nothing a rake despised more than a bluestocking, or a bluestocking a rake. They were natural enemies, like a mongoose and a cobra. Rakes dealt in nonsense, after all, and bluestockings were immune to nonsense, just as a mongoose was immune to a cobra's poison.
A smile curved Violet's lips. Her knack for creating apt analogies hadn't prevented her utter failure on the marriage mart, but it never failed to amuse her.
"Well, Violet, you're right, as usual. He is a rake, and a dreadful one, too. It seems Lord Dare has a lovely Italian villa, and an even lovelier Italian mistress he's anxious to return to."
"I can't think how Lord Derrick should be friends with him, if he's as awful as you say," Iris said. "They can't have much in common."
"Not anymore, no, though Lord Derrick says they were inseparable as boys." Honora fiddled with her wineglass, a pensive look crossing her face. "It's rather a sad story. Lord Dare had an elder brother, you see, but he was murdered by a highwayman several years ago. Such a tragic death, and now his younger brother is obliged to take a title he never expected to have, and doesn't want."
"Oh." Violet's voice softened. "That is rather sad —" She broke off, her gaze narrowing on Lord Dare as he raised his wineglass in a flirtatious toast to his dinner companion.
Violet and Iris's youngest sister, Hyacinth.
Hyacinth had been seated in a place of honor to Lord Derrick's right. She was a favorite of his, and because of her profound shyness he always insisted on taking care of his "little friend" in this way. It was kind of him, but it sometimes meant Hyacinth was seated far away from her sisters.
Tonight, she was seated right across from the wickedly handsome Lord Dare.
He was talking rather animatedly to her, his striking face alight with interest. Hyacinth listened to him with polite attention, but Violet could see the self-conscious flush on her sister's cheeks, and every one of her protective instincts rushed to the fore. "Take the ladies out, Honora."
Honora gave her a puzzled glance. "What, now? But I haven't finished my wine."
Iris glanced down the table, nudged Honora with an elbow, and jerked her chin in Hyacinth's direction. "Now would be best, Honora."
Honora followed Iris's gaze and rose at once to her feet.
Lord Derrick leapt up to open the door for the ladies, and his expression, as he watched his wife approach ...
Violet's heart lurched miserably in her chest.
She knew Lord Derrick loved Honora. He wasn't the sort of man who married a lady he didn't love. But to know a thing wasn't, alas, the same as witnessing it, and even as Violet's heart twisted with pain, she couldn't take her eyes off his face as he gazed at Honora.
His entire being was alight with joy, his brown eyes glowing with it. Honora was simply crossing the dining room, a common, everyday occurrence, and yet he watched her as if ... as if his every hope and dream had come to vibrant life in front of him.
Because it had.
He didn't just love Honora; he adored her. One had only to look at him to see there wasn't the smallest corner of his heart that didn't echo with Honora's voice, her laughter, her smile.
It wasn't any wonder Honora inspired such profound love. She was beautiful and kind and graceful, a diamond of the first water. She was the sort of lady who could bring the most jaded gentleman to his knees.
Whereas Violet ... wasn't.
She had the same dark blue eyes and fair hair that had made her sister Iris the belle of last season, but Violet's laughter didn't tinkle like silver bells. She didn't know how to toss her curls or flirt her fan. Her quadrille was a disgrace, and her musical abilities — well, even her grandmother had been brought low in defeat over Violet's tone deafness.
It wasn't as if she didn't have anything to recommend her, but the gentlemen of the ton didn't admire cleverness. They didn't fall into desperate passions over a lady who was intrigued by Chinese torture or could recite the particulars of a mongoose's immune system. No, the best such a lady could hope for was to be mocked and ridiculed.
"Violet? Are you unwell? You've gone white." Honora took her arm, her brows pinched with concern as she studied Violet's face.
To Violet's horror, tears threatened. Honora had been a true friend to her, and instead of swallowing her bitter disappointment over Lord Derrick, Violet had spent these past weeks begrudging Honora her happiness.
"I'm fine, dear. It's just a sudden headache."
Honora patted Violet's hand. "Why don't you go into the library and rest for a few moments? You can slip into the drawing room when you feel better."
"But Hyacinth —"
"She's all right. She's gone ahead into the drawing room with Iris, and Lord Huntington and Lord Derrick will join us soon."
Violet hesitated. She shouldn't abandon her younger sister, but just the thought of a few moments of solitary quiet to nurse her bruised heart made her ache with longing. "If you're certain."
"Of course I am." Honora smiled, gave her a gentle push in the direction of the library, and then turned to follow the last of the ladies into the drawing room.
Violet crept down the quiet hallway and slipped into the cool silence of the library, the faint scent of must and leather wrapping around her like an old friend. Ever since she was a child libraries had felt like home to her, and she didn't hesitate to let herself sink into the comforting embrace of this one.
She didn't bother to light a lamp, but lay down on one of the sofas in front of the fireplace. Darkness swallowed the room as the flames burned lower in the grate, until at last they disintegrated into a few glowing embers in a pile of ash.
Violet didn't mind the dark. She'd spent many evenings alone in her grandmother's library, cradling dusty books in her hands and pondering the pattern of invisible fingerprints on those old, crackling pages. And after all, it wasn't so terrible to be alone, was it? All of London might scorn the spinster bluestocking, but there was a freedom to it. Perhaps it was lonely at times, but books demanded nothing of her.
Not like people.
No, she was quite happy to be alone — Click.
Violet tensed as the catch on the library door released, followed by a faint squeak as the door was eased open, and then closed again with a quiet thud.
Thinking Honora had come to fetch her, Violet opened her mouth to make her presence known, but before she could utter a word she was interrupted by a low, masculine growl, then a high-pitched gasp.
"Stop that, my lord! You'll tear it."
Violet heard a noise that sounded like a playful slap, and then an unmistakable feminine giggle, and she instinctively sank lower into the sofa so she wasn't visible from the door.
"No, we haven't time for the bodice, my lord. Just raise my skirts and be quick, before we're missed."
Raise my skirts? That was not Honora.
"Sorry, love, but I can't forego the bodice. Not when the contents of it are so magnificent. And I'm never quick."
The lady with the magnificent bosom let out a throaty laugh. "Yes, I remember that about you, but we haven't time for ... oh. Oh, my."
There was a low, wicked chuckle, a faint rustle of clothing, and then what sounded like a coat hitting the floor. "Perhaps we have more time than you thought, my dear?"
Violet squeezed her eyes closed and raised her hands to her burning cheeks. Couldn't a lady enjoy a few private moments of peace without being forced to witness a disgraceful debauchery? For pity's sake, this was a library, not a brothel.
But surely they'd stop at a few harmless kisses? That was shameless enough — not to mention in shockingly poor taste — but even people with as little self-control as this wouldn't dare bring the, ah ... business to a conclusion right in the middle of Lord and Lady Derrick's library —
"Oh, yes. Put your hand ... yes, there. Faster ..."
The lady's words were lost in a long, soft moan that made Violet's entire body burst into flames of embarrassment.
"Hold your skirts up for me, love ... yes, like that. Ah, sweetheart, you're so ... now let me just ..."
Violet didn't get to hear what he meant to do, but whatever it was, the lady must have permitted it, because in the next moment there was a grunt, then a sharp gasp and a quiet thud, as if someone had been shoved back against the door.
And then shoved again, and again, and again in a steady, measured rhythm.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "More or Less a Countess"
Copyright © 2018 Anna Bradley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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