For the sake of propriety, and her younger sisters’ reputations, Iris Somerset has kept her rebellious streak locked away. But though she receives a proposal from Phineas Knight, Lord of Huntington, Iris can’t marry a man she knows isn’t truly enamored with her. In fact, Iris no longer wants to be chosen—she wants to choose. Under the clandestine tutelage of “wicked widow” Lady Annabel Tallant, she’ll learn how to steer her own marriage prospects—and discover her secret appetites . . .
What kind of debutante refuses a marquess? Finn is surprised, a little chastened—and thoroughly intrigued. This new, independent version of Iris is far more alluring than the polished socialite she used to be. Finn believed he needed a safe, quiet wife to curb his wilder impulses. But the more Iris surprises him, the more impossible it becomes to resist their deepest desires . . .
Praise for the Somerset Sisters series
“An enthralling and deeply compelling Regency romance. I was hooked from start to finish.” — Ella Quinn, USA Today bestselling author
“A slow burn with more implication and anticipation, but the teasing build-up is delightful.” —RT Book Reviews (4 Stars)
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Three months later
"Lord Huntington won't kiss me."
Iris Somerset drew in a deep, cleansing breath, then heaved it back out again in such a long sigh her lungs flailed in protest.
Goodness, it felt good to say that at last.
It had been weeks since she'd drawn a full breath. She'd been dangerously close to suffocation since the start of the season, when the Marquess of Huntington had singled her out as the fortunate recipient of his exalted attentions.
Of course, she hadn't meant to blurt out her confession here. One didn't speak of kissing in the middle of Lady Fairchild's rose garden. It was considered a great honor to be invited to her ladyship's Hampstead estate for her annual scavenger hunt, and a certain level of decorum was expected.
But she'd come this far, so she may as well finish it. "I've tried everything I can think of to lure him into an indiscretion, but it's like trying to coax a fish to hang itself on the hook."
Iris crossed her arms over her chest, eyed her two companions, and braced herself for the inevitable uproar.
As usual, Lady Honora broke first. "Hush, Iris! He could be right on the other side of this hedge!" She darted a panicked look around the garden to make certain they were alone, then swung back to Iris, a scandalized expression on her pretty face. "What do you mean, he won't kiss you? Of course he won't kiss —"
"Why don't you just kiss him, then? He'll succumb to his savage desires the moment your lips touch his, and that will solve the problem in an instant." Violet snapped her fingers.
At any other time Iris might have found it amusing they'd each reacted just as she'd predicted they would, but Lord Huntington's lack of interest wasn't a laughing matter. "As far as I know, he hasn't got any savage desires. That's the problem, Violet."
Lady Honora winced at the word desires. "My goodness, Iris. What do you expect? He's an honorable gentleman."
Violet frowned. "Honorable gentlemen don't have desires?"
"No! I mean, yes, of course they ... oh, how should I know?" Lady Honora turned on Violet. "If they do have desires, they keep them well hidden out of respect to their betrothed."
Iris couldn't deny Lord Huntington treated her with the utmost respect. He was unfailingly solicitous and polite, just as one would expect from a gentleman of such impeccable character. No proper young lady could complain of such treatment.
How disconcerting to find, mere weeks before she was to become the Marchioness of Huntington, that she wasn't, after all, a proper young lady. "He's too respectful, if you ask me."
Violet wiped her tears of laughter on the sleeve of her gown. "Well, you'll have him all to yourself soon enough. Can't you wait to lure him into a kiss in the privacy of your bedchamber after you're wed?"
"I can wait, yes, but he shouldn't be able to."
"Oh, dear." Lady Honora was wringing her hands. "I'm sure we shouldn't be discussing kissing. Or luring. Or bedchambers."
"Perhaps not, Honora, but who else am I meant to talk to if not you and Violet? Do you suppose I'll discuss kissing and bedchambers with my grandmother?"
The idea Iris would have such a discussion with Lady Chase, their elderly, cantankerous grandmother, sent Violet off into fresh gales of laughter.
Iris glared at her younger sister. "You may laugh all you like, Violet, but you'd do well to keep in mind you'll have to manage your own troublesome suitors soon enough. Now, what am I meant to do to encourage, ah ... a physical expression of affection?"
"Do?" Lady Honora gasped in horror. "Why, nothing at all. How can you ask such a thing, Iris?"
"How can I not ask it, Honora? If anyone bothered to show young ladies how to subtly indicate to a gentleman a kiss would be welcome, I wouldn't need your advice at all. For pity's sake, all that time spent practicing the quadrille and pounding away at the pianoforte, but not a word about how to orchestrate a seduction."
"Seduction?" Lady Honora looked ready to swoon. "Have you lost your wits?"
"Well, what have you done to encourage him so far?" Violet had overcome her fit of hysteria, and she clapped her hands together with her usual practicality, as if preparing to marshal her troops.
Iris gave a helpless shrug. The truth was, she didn't have the faintest idea how to entice a gentleman into a kiss. "Whatever I could think of. Gazed into his eyes, brushed his hand with mine when he takes my arm — that sort of thing. We've walked alone in Grandmother's garden several times, once in the moonlight, even, but Lord Huntington is immune to every amorous overture."
Immune, or oblivious. Iris hadn't yet decided which. The latter could be overcome easily enough, but the former ...
That was a bit more worrying.
Violet tapped her bottom lip with her finger, considering. "Have you licked your lips? I read somewhere glistening lips make gentlemen think of kissing."
Iris stared at her sister. Wherever did Violet get such notions? "I haven't tried that, no."
Lady Honora let out a little moan of distress and covered her face.
"Oh, do stop moaning, Honora. It's a kiss, not a ruination, and they are betrothed, after all." Violet paused, her gaze narrowing on Honora's flushed face. "You're betrothed too, come to that. Has Lord Harley kissed you?"
Lady Honora's flush spread to the roots of her hair. "Well, I — that is ... oh, for goodness' sakes, Violet. Very well. Yes, he managed to corner me into it once, in this very garden. He's quicker than he looks, you see."
Lady Honora's voice quivered with distaste. She didn't care at all for Lord Harley, but Lady Fairchild insisted on the match, and Honora wouldn't dare to question her mother's wishes.
Violet's brows drew into a puzzled frown. "Well, perhaps the glistening lips would help, but otherwise I can't account for it. Lord Huntington is quite ... well, he's a vigorous sort of gentleman, isn't he?"
They all paused for a moment to consider the question of Lord Huntington's vigor.
A moment was all it took.
Lady Honora let a tiny sigh escape, and Iris and Violet responded with breathless sighs of their own.
Physically speaking, Phineas Knight, the Marquess of Huntington, was utter perfection.
His presence was enough to set feminine eyelashes fluttering across every ballroom in London, and for good reason. But it wasn't just his broad shoulders, his cool hazel eyes, or his thick golden-brown hair that made every bosom in London heave with delight. It wasn't even his ancient title, or the impressive fortune that accompanied it, though any one of these things was more than enough to recommend him to a young lady.
No, it was the man himself. He was the quintessential English gentleman. Honorable, handsome, and intelligent, fashionable without being a fop, skilled with the sword and pistol, and an accomplished whip, Lord Huntington was what every lady sighed for, and every gentleman aspired to be, and if he was a bit too cold and grand for some tastes, fashionable society didn't blink at it.
The man was a marquess, after all.
Lady Honora sighed again. "His face is perfect in every regard."
Violet rolled her eyes. "No one is flawless, Honora, not even Lord Huntington."
"Well, what's his flaw, then? I defy you to identify one."
"It's that tiny dimple in the center of his chin," Violet declared without hesitation.
"But that dimple is charming. Don't you think so, Iris?"
Iris had grave concerns about Lord Huntington's frigid propriety, but his face was beautiful, and it was nothing short of heresy to remain silent while her sister maligned that lovely dimple. "I've always been rather enamored of it. How is it a flaw, Violet?"
Violet gave them a triumphant look. "Because, any lady who dreams of kissing him — and that's every lady in London, by my reckoning — must decide whether to start with his delicious lips, or that distracting little dimple."
There was a brief silence, then Iris and Violet burst into laughter.
Even Lady Honora couldn't resist a smile. "How did you come to be so wicked, Violet?"
"We're discussing Iris's wickedness, if you please, Honora. Though I don't know if it's so very wicked for her to want an innocent kiss from her betrothed. It's not as if she expects him to drag her off into the bushes and ravage her."
"No, but when I try to lure him into a kiss, I do expect him to cooperate." Iris glanced at Honora. "I only want to see if I find it acceptable. Is that so shocking?"
If she could judge by the tingle of anticipation in her belly every time she looked at his lips, she'd find it quite acceptable, indeed, but what use were his handsome lips if he kept them to himself?
Iris hesitated, then swallowed down the last bitter remnants of her pride. "Do you suppose he doesn't want to kiss me?"
The humiliating truth was, she'd suspected for some time he didn't have any true affection for her. His courtship had been utterly correct, but Iris had nevertheless been surprised when he came up to scratch. He could have whoever he wanted, after all. Every young lady in London had spent the entire season sighing over him.
Once he did take his suit to her grandmother, he'd been given approval readily enough. Indeed, no one would think to refuse Lord Huntington anything, including Iris, who'd accepted him as a matter of course, and perhaps just the tiniest flash of guilty triumph at having secured the one gentleman every lady in London yearned for.
But it wasn't long before a distressing voice in her head began whispering Lord Huntington wasn't all that enamored of her, and no matter what she did, it wouldn't be silenced. She didn't expect him to make some elaborate declaration, or attempt a seduction. He wasn't a demonstrative sort of gentleman. But an innocent kiss would go a long way to relieve her doubts about his affections.
But the kiss was not forthcoming, and Iris couldn't quite hide her unhappiness as she looked at Violet and Honora. "Perhaps he regrets making an offer, and wishes he were betrothed to another lady."
Honora rushed to wrap an arm around Iris's shoulder. "Oh no, Iris. I'm sure that's not it. No one is lovelier than you."
Violet, who refused to hear a disparaging word about any of her four sisters, looked offended at the very suggestion. "Every eligible gentleman this season has been angling for your hand, Iris. Lord Huntington is fortunate to get you, and I daresay he knows it. You're everything the belle of her season should be."
Lady Honora squeezed Iris's arm. "Violet's right, Iris. Social custom, habit, propriety — all conspire to keep you from becoming familiar with each other before you're wed. Lord Huntington's behavior is utterly correct. As a gentleman, he can't breach decorum, even if he wishes to."
Iris drew in a shaky breath. Perhaps they were right, and she was fretting over nothing. "I hadn't thought of it quite like that. It's just ... I thought courtship would be different. More romantic, somehow. It's foolish of me, I suppose."
"I don't think it's foolish at all. It's a simple kiss, for goodness' sake, and little enough to ask. Surely between the three of us we can come up with a way for Iris to tempt Lord Huntington into a kiss. Now let's see — she's tried moonlit walks, a touch to the hand, gazing into his eyes, and she'll try the glistening lips." Violet was ticking points off on her fingers. "It's a good start, I daresay, but there must be more she can do. Help me think, Honora."
A long silence ensued as they each considered the possibilities, and it continued to stretch until at last Violet made a disgusted noise in her throat. "For pity's sake. I can't think of another thing. You're quite right, Iris. Once a lady is betrothed, what good does it do her to know how to flirt a fan? The accomplishments expected of a young lady on the marriage mart are utterly useless once she sets foot outside Almack's."
Lady Honora shook her head at this. "Well, Iris's accomplishments worked well enough to secure her an enviable suitor. She is betrothed to the Marquess of Huntington, after all."
"Yes, but what am I meant do once I'm married to him? No one says a word about that, do they? Indeed, no one seems to care much what happens to a lady after she's secured a proper husband, unless she does something scandalous."
"My goodness, Iris. What a depressing thought." Violet took her by the shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. "You'll give yourself the vapors. Come now, I know just what you need to cheer you up."
"You do?" Iris gave her sister a hopeful look. "What is it?"
"A kiss from Lord Huntington, of course."
Iris deflated again. "I've tried everything I can think of, Violet —"
"No, you haven't. You haven't tried to kiss him." Violet seized her arm with one hand, and pointed toward a pathway that led to the back of the garden, her face flushed with sudden excitement. "He just went down that pathway. Quickly. Go after him, and kiss him!"
Lady Honora grabbed Iris's other arm. "No! She can't go chasing Lord Huntington all over the garden. It isn't proper. What will my mother say if she finds out?"
"She won't find out unless you tell her, Honora. There's no one about in this part of the garden. Go on, Iris. It's a scavenger hunt, after all." Violet's lips turned up in a grin. "Surely a kiss from Lord Huntington wins you the game."
Iris took a hesitant step forward, but then stopped. What if she should look into those cool hazel eyes of his and see nothing but indifference? "What if he ... what if he rebuffs me?"
To her surprise, Lady Honora released her arm and gave her a gentle push in the direction Lord Huntington had gone. "He won't, Iris. He never would have made you an offer if he didn't care for you, but if a kiss will ease your doubts, then it's worth the lapse in propriety."
Iris took a few stumbling steps forward, then a few more. Her heart rushed into her throat at the idea of kissing Lord Huntington, but when she looked back, Violet and Honora both smiled reassuringly at her.
"Go on." Violet waved her forward. "We'll wait for you on the terrace."
Iris plunged blindly into the foliage until she saw him ahead of her, hurrying along the twisting pathways. She would have lost him entirely if she hadn't caught occasional glimpses of his dark green coat among the brighter greens in the garden.
"Lord Huntington?" She was a bit breathless from chasing after him, but she was only a few paces away when she called out. There could be no doubt he'd heard her. Yet he hesitated before turning to face her, and once he did ...
Oh, dear God.
It took every bit of bravery Iris could muster not to flee back into the safety of the garden. He never fell into spasms of joy when he saw her, but he was looking at her now as if she were an offensive bit of garden fungus.
"Miss Somerset." His smiled was strained. "I suppose you're on your way back to the terrace?"
Iris gave him a puzzled look. It was an odd question, since she was walking in the opposite direction. "No, my lord. I still need to find the red rose petals for the scavenger hunt, and Lady Honora sent me this way. She said all the nicest red roses are at the back of the garden."
"I'm sure I saw some closer to the house."
His tone was polite enough, but a frown played at the corners of his lips. Even so, Iris's foolish heart began to pound with anticipation when she met his gaze. His hazel eyes were changeable, and this afternoon they were more golden than brown, with just the faintest hint of green.
A little sigh escaped her. If a lady were to kiss a gentleman, she could do a great deal worse than Lord Huntington.
"I'm sure you must be fatigued after so long a time in the sun. Allow me to escort you back to the terrace."
He offered his arm, and Iris took it, but she held back when he tried to take her down a path that led to the house. "No, I'm not fatigued. I'm very well, and it's a lovely afternoon, isn't it? Such beautiful light."
"Yes. Lovely." But he didn't look as if he were enchanted with the garden, or with her. His frown deepened until it was almost a scowl, and his arm tensed under her fingers. "But I'm certain your sister must be looking for you, and I believe Lady Fairchild was about to serve tea."
Iris hesitated, puzzled at his curt tone. Lord Huntington hadn't ever been romantic with her, but he'd also never been anything other than scrupulously polite, and his tone at the moment bordered on rudeness. He seemed agitated, as well, as if he expected someone to jump out of the bushes at any moment.
"Just to the far end of the garden, my lord, to see the roses." She cast him what she hoped was an encouraging look from under her lashes. "They're in bloom, and there's a bench there where we can rest."
Excerpted from "More or Less a Marchioness"
Copyright © 2018 Anna Bradley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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