The first book in Valerie Bowman's sexy Secret Brides trilogy, Secrets of a Wedding Night
HOW TO STOP A WEDDING
Young, widowed, and penniless, Lily Andrews, the Countess of Merrill, has strong opinions on marriage. When she spots a certain engagement announcement in The Times, she decides to take action. She will not allow another hapless girl to fall prey to a manparticularly the scoundrel who broke her heart five years ago. Anonymously she writes and distributes a pamphlet entitled "Secrets of a Wedding Night," knowing it will find its way into his intended's innocent hands…
HOW TO SEDUCE A WIDOW
Devon Morgan, the Marquis of Colton, desires a good wife and mother to his sonsomeone completely unlike Lily Andrews, the heartless beauty who led him on a merry chase five years ago only to reject him. When Devon's new fiancée cries off after reading a certain scandalous pamphlet, he vows to track down the author and make her pay. But when he learns it's his former fiancée Lily, he issues a challenge: write a retraction or prepare to be seducedto find out how wonderful a wedding night can be…
About the Author
Valerie Bowman has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in History from Smith College. By day, she is a technical writer and 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. Her work has been nominated for several fiction awards, and her novel Secrets of a Wedding Nightwon first place in two romance writer contests. Originally from Rantoul, Illinois, Valerie lives in Fleming Island, Florida with her two rascally dogs.
Read an Excerpt
London, April 1816
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The blows on the door echoed through the foyer. Lily heard them all the way in the study where she was poring over the dismal household accounts for the hundredth time.
“I demand to see the countess,” a deep male voice thundered.
Lily stopped scribbling. She glanced at Leopold, the scruffy brown terrier who sat curled on a worn cushion at her feet. “Demand? Good heavens.” She shook her head. “Which one of my so-called admirers is at it today?”
Returning her attention to the ledger, she mumbled, “Who knew? Apparently, twenty-two-year-old widows are all the rage this Season. That is, twenty-two-year-old widows reportedly worth a small fortune.”
Leopold cocked his head and barked. Lily bit her lip. “Or it could be a debt collector.”
Evans appeared in the doorway. Lily regarded her old friend with a weary sigh. “So, which is it? A fortune hunter or a creditor?”
“My lady, Lord Colton is in the white salon. He insists upon seeing you.”
Lily sat up straight. “Colton?”
“The Marquis of Colton,” Evans clarified, clearing his throat.
Leopold yipped as if he recognized the name. Evans gave the dog a dubious glance indicative of the strained relationship the two had shared over the last several years.
Lily rubbed the feathered tip of her quill against her nose, her brows knitting together. “Hmm. This is an interesting development.”
She was grateful Evans had been awake to answer the door. Her butler had an unfortunate penchant for falling asleep at the most unexpected times. Though she suspected the racket had roused him.
Plopping the quill back into the well, she stood and smoothed her palms down her worn, gray skirts.
“Tell Lord Colton I’ll be in momentarily, Evans.” She nodded, enjoying the jolt of anticipation that leaped to life in her belly.
Devon Morgan, Marquis of Colton, in her house. Well. Of course she’d relish a distraction from the depressing house accounts, but there was something else. She’d relish the distraction from the simpering fops who’d been appearing on her doorstep smelling of too much sweet cologne and desperation. Lord Colton might be trouble, but there was nothing desperate about him.
She clapped her hands and her canine companion fell into line behind her. She and Leo whisked up the back staircase. Lily squelched the little smile that popped to her lips. Oh, yes. She knew exactly why Lord Colton was sitting in her salon. Though she hadn’t expected to see him quite so soon.
* * *
A quarter hour later, Lily made her way down the main hallway, past the tattered carpets she couldn’t afford to replace. She’d changed from the threadbare dove-gray gown into the darker morning dress she saved for company.
She drew in one last deep breath and pushed open the double doors to the white salon with both hands. She let the doors close behind her while her gaze scanned the room. It was beautifully decorated with delicate rosewood chairs, sterling silver candlesticks, and lovely antique vases filled with fresh flowers. The only room in the house so well appointed. Another concession to appearances.
Lily squared her shoulders. The confident smile she had pasted on her face belied the nervous knot of anticipation that roiled through her belly. She folded her hands serenely—a trick her mother taught her long ago—and made her way into the room.
Lord Colton sat in an embroidered chair, facing the window, his profile to her. He’d turned his head at the sound of her entrance. His countenance was a study in barely controlled anger. But years of breeding could not be denied. He rose to greet her.
Lily sucked in her breath. My, my, she hadn’t seen the Marquis of Colton up close in an age. He’d always been handsome—how could she forget?—but she had failed to remember him being quite this good-looking.
He stood easily two inches over six feet tall, with slightly curly, raven-black hair. He had chiseled cheekbones and a perfectly sculpted mouth that could linger in one’s memory, if one were interested in such things, which Lily decidedly was not. But most intriguing of all were his eyes. Deep, dark, and coffee brown, they shone with an off-putting intelligence and were framed by thick, long lashes that held an appeal all their own.
Lily pressed her lips together. Oh, yes, the Marquis of Colton was tall, dark, and handsome. Too much of all three for Lily’s peace of mind.
She swept toward him, meeting his eyes, and his anger seemed to diffuse a bit. His shoulders settled and his stance became less rigid.
“Lord Colton.” She curtsied and her dark skirts pooled around her ankles. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? I haven’t seen you in—what’s it been—three years? Four?”
Leopold trotted past—affording Lord Colton with a distinctive growl indicative of the strained relationship they had shared in the past—before taking up residence on his favorite cushion in the corner.
Lily hid her smile and offered her hand to the marquis.
When he touched her small, cold fingers with his strong, warm ones, a frisson of awareness skittered up Lily’s spine. He bowed. There was that breeding again.
“Four years, perhaps,” he answered. “And whether or not this visit is pleasurable remains to be seen, my lady.”
His voice seemed to seek out some sensitive place along her nerves and thrum a thrilling tune. Deep, masculine, and oh-so-powerful was Lord Colton’s voice. And confident. She mustn’t forget confident.
Pulling her hand away from his unsettling touch, Lily crossed her arms over her chest and drummed her fingertips along her elbows. Four years? It had been nearly five and he knew it.
They both knew it.
“How did you find me, my lord? Seems the last time you were expected to pay me a visit, you lost your way.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “It was quite simple, really. I merely followed the trail of men to your door. Rumor has it your butler has had to beat away your suitors with a stick. When he can stay awake, that is.”
Lily gritted her teeth. “It’s indelicate of you to mention Evans’s unfortunate condition, but I suppose I should expect no more of you. I also employ a maid who cannot remember her name from one moment to the next. Not all households can be as illustrious as yours, now can they?”
His only reply was a smirk. So much for that good breeding.
“But now that I think upon it, it is a fine idea,” Lily continued. “I shall have to ask Evans to fetch a stick. It’s unfortunate he didn’t have one before you arrived.”
Leopold’s ears perked and Lily shook her head, assuring the dog there was, in fact, no stick to be had. He slumped back onto his cushion and closed his eyes.
Lord Colton’s smile was tight. “I am not a suitor, and I assure you, your butler would need more than a stick to keep me from my mission today.”
“Mission? My, it sounds dire. But please, be quick about it. I’m quite busy of late, planning Annie’s debut.” And keeping the creditors at bay, she thought with a grimace.
His face registered only mild surprise. “Annie? That little imp is eighteen already?”
Lily nodded. No doubt he recalled how a thirteen-year-old Annie used to hide behind the banister at the top of the staircase in their parents’ house and giggle when Colton would come to pay a call on Lily.
She shook her head. That was all a long time ago. A very long time ago.
Colton’s voice held a note of sarcasm. “No doubt your sister will be as sought after as you are.”
Lily shrugged. “Annie doesn’t know the dangers that await her in the marriage mart, but her heart remains set upon a debut and I would do anything to make her happy.” Lily waved a hand in the air, dismissing the subject. She rang for Evans. “Would you care for some tea, my lord?” she asked in a deceptively sweet voice.
“No, thank you.”
Lily sighed. Lord Colton’s dark eyes tracked her every move. They seemed omniscient, as if he knew her secrets. Could he tell how relieved she was that he’d refused the tea? Cream and sugar were as precious as gold.
“I’d prefer a brandy,” he quickly added.
“It’s half two,” she replied with a disapproving stare. And brandy isn’t cheap either.
His hooded eyes showed no emotion. “Your point?”
The muscles in Lily’s cheeks ached from keeping the fake smile plastered to her face. She let the smile fade and turned to the sideboard where she splashed only a bit of brandy into a glass for Lord Colton. The man was exactly like her father, a drinker and a gambler.
And she’d known no one as useless as her father.
“I see in addition to your renowned gambling and your rakishness, you’ve also turned to the bottle. Are you trying for all seven of the deadly sins?”
His voice was calm. “And I see in addition to your renowned flirtations and your fickleness, your skills as a hostess leave much to be desired.”
Smile firmly in place, she turned back to begrudgingly hand Lord Colton his drink. His gaze flicked to Leopold. “I see you’ve still got your mongrel.”
Leopold lifted a floppy ear and growled again.
Lily stiffened her spine. “I would never part with my Leo.”
Lord Colton smiled a smile that made Lily wonder why it was so hot in the salon of a sudden. Some dark emotion kindled in his eyes. “You never could resist a stray.”
Lily gave Colton a blatant once-over. Oh, no, they weren’t talking about Leo anymore. She delicately cleared her throat. “Do tell me, what brings you here this afternoon?”
He waited for her to sit first, of course, before taking his place in the chair across from her. His size made the piece look like doll furniture. Her gaze traveled from the tip of his black Hessians up his long legs stretched in front of him, encased in biscuit-colored trousers. Her eyes lingered on his narrow hips and broad shoulders, before moving up to the decidedly irritated look on his perfect face.
Confound it. The man looked even better than he had five years ago. Five long years ago.
Lily shook her head to clear it of such thoughts. She folded her hands in her lap. “Tell me why you’re here,” she repeated. “And I shall attempt to seem as if I care what you have to say.” She smiled prettily.
Colton’s eyes narrowed. “I’d be surprised, Countess, if you did not already know the reason for my call.”
She bristled at his not-so-subtle emphasis on her title. If he hoped for a reaction to his veiled barb, he was about to be disappointed. The title was hers. She’d paid for it dearly.
She refused to let him see it bothered her. “Is that so? Should I guess then? Stop me as soon as I am correct.” She took a deep breath, prepared to rattle off a list of innocuous motives.
He thrust up a palm, stopping her. “That is unnecessary. I’m here to discuss a certain pamphlet that has been circulating in the company of young, unmarried females. A pamphlet entitled Secrets of a Wedding Night.”
Lily kept her face blank. As if on cue, the butler carried in a tea tray and set it on the table in front of her. “Thank you, Evans.”
Lily busied herself with pouring the tea. “Hmm. Secrets of a Wedding Night. Yes, I’ve heard rumors of that scandalous bit of writing.”
Colton crossed his long legs at the ankles. Casual. Perhaps too casual. She could be that casual if she chose.
“I assume you have also heard, then, my lady, that you are widely rumored to be the author of that particular piece.”
She kept her eyes downcast and dropped only one costly lump of sugar into her teacup. She stirred slowly, set the tiny silver spoon aside, and raised her chin to stare him in the eye.
“Me?” she asked in a falsely shocked voice.
“Yes, everyone knows you and Viscount Medford are thick as thieves. He’s been known to publish that sort of drivel.”
“Keeping track of my friendships, are you, my lord?”
“Only when it affects me, my lady.”
She clucked her tongue. “Ghastly thing, gossip.”
“Well?” His voice held an edge.
This called for an innocent look, and Lily just so happened to have perfected an innocent look. “What are you asking, my lord?” Positively saintly.
His black eyebrow arched, his gaze pinning her in a way that made her teacup shake a bit on the saucer. Drat! She hastily set the cup on the table and snatched her hands away.
“Did you write it?” He drew out the words slowly. His deep voice echoed off the salon’s aging wallpaper.
“My, my, my, Lord Colton.” Thank heavens she’d also perfected tinkling laughter. “I must say you’re the very first person to come out and ask me.” Disconcerting. Most disconcerting.
“Did. You. Write. It?” he repeated, sounding like a man who was used to having his questions answered the first time.
Lily retrieved her teacup and took a tiny sip. Ah, yes. This was one of the reasons it hadn’t worked between the two of them—one of the many reasons. “I’d forgotten you were this direct. Direct, domineering, and completely used to getting your way. Tiresome qualities in a man.”
He set his glass aside and snapped the leather riding gloves he still held in his hand. “I won’t ask a third time,” he replied with his own type of smile—a decidedly angry one—that Lily was sure he had perfected.
She stirred her tea with the spoon and spoke slowly. “I assume you’re here, asking these questions, because…”
His new smile was tight. “Because my affianced bride, Miss Templeton, just cried off, and according to her distraught mother, it was a direct result of her reading your pamphlet.”
Lily averted her eyes. A strange sensation tugged at her. Guilt? No. Not possible. She tapped the spoon on the side of the porcelain cup. Ping. Ping. Ping.
Hmm. This little episode had the potential to become quite messy.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” she lied. “Though I cannot say I blame Miss Templeton. Marriage is not all it’s purported to be. Awful business, really.” She shuddered.
Colton did not look amused. “Did you write that blasted pamphlet or not?”
Lily raised her cup to her lips, hiding her expression behind it, watching him. Why, the cad was nearly shouting at her. Not to mention the swearing. Did she write the pamphlet? Of course she wrote it, and she happened to be exceedingly proud of it. But she couldn’t very well admit it and still maintain her place in Polite Society. And she needed her place in Society, for Annie’s sake.
“Tsk, tsk. Such language, Lord Colton.” Another sip of tea. “If I wrote it—and I am not saying I did—I would stand behind its contents. Young ladies should know exactly what they’re getting into, after all. That pamphlet provides a much-needed service to the uninformed.”
She dropped her gaze. No use trying to make him understand. He could never know the fright of a wedding night, married to a man old enough to be your grandfather, someone you didn’t know, didn’t love. All with no choice in the matter. It was enough to shatter a girl’s dreams. Just as Lord Colton had helped to shatter hers, though she’d die before she’d admit it to him.
He clenched his jaw and leaned toward her, bracing his forearms on his knees. His maddeningly masculine scent found her nostrils, a mixture of horse leather, the barest hint of expensive cologne, and something indefinable. Probably that blasted confidence.
His voice was silky, yet menacing, and held a promising tone that made it seem hot in the room again. “That pamphlet is a pack of lies told by a woman who hasn’t been bedded properly.”
She gasped. Good heavens. She should slap him and order him from her house for saying such an indelicate thing. Instead, his words caused a rush of heat to singe her nerves. But she refused to be shocked by him. She would give him back as good as he gave.
Lily kept her eyes hooded and leaned toward him. “Surely you’re not implying that you are the authority on bedding women properly? Even you couldn’t possibly be that arrogant, my lord. Or do I give you too much credit?”
The growl that followed was meant to intimidate. Lily was sure of it. Instead, it served to delight. Finally. She’d scored a hit in their war of words.
“I imply nothing,” he ground out, mirroring her action by leaning toward her, his mouth merely inches from hers. Their eyes met. “I know exactly how to bed a woman properly.” Lily sucked in her breath sharply, but she refused to look away. He stared her down. “Furthermore, I accuse you of writing that libelous bit of rubbish, and I demand you retract it.”
Lily snapped her head to the side and bit her lip. Another flash of guilt—she was now quite convinced it was guilt—swept through her. He wanted a retraction? That’s what he was after? He couldn’t possibly be in love with the girl. Could he? She pressed a hand against her sinking stomach.
Giving her head a shake, she turned back to face him. The fact that your fiancée allowed some silly pamphlet to scare her off may tell you something you don’t want to know, Colton. Or have you never considered that?” She swept her hands across her lap and squared her shoulders. “At any rate, this conversation is entirely inappropriate, my lord. I think it would be best if you take your leave now.”
Leopold’s furry head shot up and he growled softly, watching his mistress as if ready to defend her if necessary.
Lord Colton gave the dog a distasteful glance and made no move to go. Instead, he stared Lily down again, a muscle ticking in his jaw once more. “Oh, no you don’t. You cannot go about destroying people’s lives without answering for it.”
Lily stared right back. “Resorting to intimidation now, are you, my lord?” Time to put an end to this ridiculous conversation. And she knew just how to do it. “I realize you need to marry an heiress. Everyone knows your father left your estates completely penniless, and your own heedless gambling hasn’t helped the situation, but it seems you’ll just have to find another young woman to lure with empty promises.” She smiled a fake-sweet smile. “Perhaps one who is less well read?”
Colton slapped the black gloves against his thigh, his dark eyes blazing. Leopold propped himself up on his two front paws, poised for action.
Colton’s deep voice came through clenched teeth. “I want you to write a retraction. I want you to tell Miss Templeton what you wrote is only one young lady’s experience.”
“Souls in Hades want a drink of water.” Lily gripped the arm of her rosewood chair until her fingers ached. “You may be used to ordering about your servants and your timid little Miss Templeton, but you certainly shall not order me about. I am quite through with being ordered about by men.” She leaped from her chair. Leopold sprang up and bared his teeth at the marquis.
Colton surged to his feet. He squeezed his gloves so hard, the whites of his knuckles showed.
Lily stretched to her full height. Though her own diminutive size of three inches over five feet was no match for him, she would not allow him to intimidate her. She had to strain her neck to stare up at him. “By the by, this is what it looks like, my lord, when someone fails to kowtow to you. No doubt it’s a foreign concept, but one that exists, I assure you.”
The muscle continued to tic in his jaw. “You will write a retraction.”
“Will I?” she asked, nonchalant, struggling not to let him see how deeply he’d affected her. Her hands trembled. “And how exactly do you intend to force me to do that?” She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her black slipper on the carpet, awaiting his answer.
Lord Colton pulled on one glove and then the other. He bowed to her, though anger still emanated from every pore. “I intend to prove to you that your bloody pamphlet is wrong. I intend to show you how a real man pleasures a woman.” He stared her straight in the eye.
Sparks leaped between them. Lily’s heart thumped in her throat.
“I intend to seduce you, Countess.”
Lily’s jaw dropped, and one second later, he spun her into his arms. She tried to push away, but his mouth swooped down to capture hers. Her hands struggled against his broad shoulders. The brush of his bold lips made her dizzy. Her head fell back. She stopped thinking. His hot, insistent tongue invaded her mouth, and Lily’s stomach dropped in a way it hadn’t in … five years. Blast it. She whimpered. Her hands crept up to wrap around his neck. She melted against him.
Lord Colton pulled his mouth from hers and took a step back. His breath came in heavy pants. His perfect hair was slightly mussed. Something akin to bewilderment flashed through his dark eyes. If Lily hadn’t been intently watching, she might have missed it. She touched her fingertips to her burning lips.
Colton turned abruptly and strode toward the door. “Consider that an opening shot across your bow, my dear. You have been warned.”
Copyright © 2012 by Valerie Bowman