Widow Theodosia Cecil is determined to protect her young son. If that means advertising in the newspaper for a husband to make sure her child’s newfound inheritance stays safe, well, that’s what she’s going to do. What she didn’t count on was Ewan Fitzwilliam coming back into her life at the worst possible time.
Ewan has been at war for six years, and while he tries to fight his attraction to Theo, the woman he believed betrayed him, he can’t understand why she wants nothing to do with him. She definitely has secrets, and he’s determined to find out what is going on.
But evil machinations at work are doing their best to keep Theo and Ewan apart…
Each book in the Advertisements for Love series is STANDALONE:
* The Bittersweet Bride
* The Bashful Bride
* The Butterfly Bride
* The Bewildered Bride
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You Have Mail & Memories
London, England, September 7, 1819
Theodosia Cecil dipped her head, hoping her gray bonnet would hide her tall form amongst the crowd of Burlington Arcade shoppers. Her heart beat a rhythm of fear as her brow fevered with questions.
Could it be him?
Why was he haunting her now?
She spun, praying her wobbly legs would support her flight from the ghost. Spying a path between a chatty woman and her admirer, Theodosia claimed it and swayed toward the open door.
Safe in the shop, she put a hand to her thumping heart. Seeing the face of someone dead ... It shook her, forced too many memories. The image of Ewan, her deceased first love, had to be a figment of Theodosia's conscience, nothing more. Why would this vision rear up now — questioning her resolve to be in town garnering letters offering matrimony from strangers?
Her hands trembled, puckering the stiff seams of her new kid gloves as she stuffed the sealed papers into her reticule. What if she'd dropped them in her mad dash? With all the people milling beneath the sparkling glass roof of the Arcade, the responses would've been lost, and with them, her dream of protecting her son. Hope in her plan slipped from her grasp, even with her onyx mitts. This time, there would be no kind Mathew Cecil to pick her up and wipe her clean.
She missed her late husband and his endless patience. He should be the only dead man in her head. Yet, there stood Ewan Fitzwilliam's ghost, vividly in her imagination. Perhaps it was her heart crying out at this unromantic way of finding a new husband.
"Ma'am, may I help you?"
Theodosia lifted her gaze from her gloves to a small cherry-red face.
"Our store has much to offer," the young girl said. "Did ye come for something special, Mrs. Cecil?"
Startling at the girl's use of her name, Theodosia raised her chin, then scanned from side to side at the pots. She took a breath and smelled sweet roses and lilacs. "What is this place? A perfumer?"
"Yes, Mrs. Cecil, and we use Cecil flowers to make the best fragrances."
The girl knew who she was, and the lilt in the young blonde's voice made Theodosia's lips lift. Respect always felt good.
A little less jittery, she nodded at the girl then turned to the walnut shelf and poked the lid of a greenish jar. The scent of lavender filled the air. Pride in her and her husband's accomplishment inflated her lungs. "Cecil flowers are the best."
The calm ushered in from the soft, sweet scents allowed her thoughts to right. Ghosts didn't exist. If they did, then it would be Mathew visiting her, guiding her, pushing her cold feet forward whenever she felt she couldn't do something, as he'd often done during their five short years of marriage. He had died almost a year ago.
The shop girl came beside her, dusting the shelves. "Would you like some of the lavender, Mrs. Cecil?"
That beautiful name, the only last name she'd ever possessed — the repetition of it inspired questions. "You know me from the flower fields? Have we met?"
"Everyone knew Mr. Cecil. God rest his soul. And all the flower girls know you. If a Blackamoor ... Sorry, if a shop girl could be more, then we all can."
Theodosia, dark skin and all, an inspiration to others? If those shop girls knew the whole of things, they would be scandalized. Horrified at the things she'd done, Theodosia became teary-eyed. She'd received unmerited favor catching Mathew Cecil's eye and his mercy.
"Sorry, I didn't mean nothing."
Theodosia nodded and tugged at her sleeve, hitting her reticule against her buttons, which clinked like serving bells. Her fine clothes hid the past, the fatigue and hunger of living on the streets. She forced a smile. "Becoming more is the beginning."
"Yes, ma'am. Quite a good 'ne."
From the outside, it must look like that, but some secrets were best kept in the grave. She turned from the almost-hero worship look in the shop girl's eyes and counted the brightly colored decanters in hues of salmon and cobalt blue lining a near table. "This is a lovely place. Have you done well since the shop's opening?"
"Some days. Some mornings, we're good and busy. Others, slow and easy. So much different than selling on the streets."
That worn-out heart of Theodosia's started moving within her chest. She caught the girl's shy gaze and said, "Slow days mean no money, but they can give ease to the back." With her palm, she cupped her mouth. "I meant selling flowers ... long days." There were worse things for the back than an honest day's work selling flowers. Her mother's work at a brothel — that had been hard.
The younger woman nodded, but frowned as a shadow engulfed her.
A thick, portly fellow wearing a heavy burlap apron stepped from behind them. "Do ye belong here, m-m-miss?"
Theodosia blinked then stared at the man who stood with arms folded, disapproval flexing each meaty muscle. "Are you sure you're supposed to be here? Black servants don't come unattended. Blackamoor or whatever you are?"
"Sir, this is Mr. Cecil's widow," the shop girl said as her gaze dropped.
The man gawked as he glared at Theodosia. After an eternity of seconds, he said, "Oh ... that Mrs. Cecil."
The pride she'd felt at hearing the Cecil name slipped away. It fell to the floor, ready to be trampled by her own short heels. With silk ribbons trailing her bonnet and an onyx walking dress stitched with heavy brass buttons, he still saw her as low. Was he thinking, as she often did: mistress, half-breed, by-blow, whore?
No matter what Theodosia felt about her past, she'd not let the sour shop clerk, or anyone else, stuff her into one of those names. She was a widow to a good man. "I'm not a servant, sir. In fact, you are one of the many vendors who use my family's wares for your livelihood." She took a step closer to the man. "I'm your business partner."
The man turned a lovely shade of purple, darker than fallen bee orchid buds. The veins on his neck pulsed.
As wonderful as it was to make him uncomfortable, it was never good to leave a bull enraged. Mathew had taught her that. She jangled her reticule, letting the tink-tink sound of clanging coins speak for her. "I'd like to be a patron."
The man harrumphed over his glasses. "We have many items." He pivoted to the shop girl. "Sally, go dust in the back. I'll take care of Mrs. Cecil."
The young woman nodded. "Good meeting you, ma'am." She offered another smile then pattered away.
Theodosia forced her shoulders to straighten and paced around the man. As a free woman and a proper widow with money, she could shop here. A glance to the left helped her settle on a practical item. "I'd like to purchase some soap."
The man nodded and pointed her to a table skirted in crimson silk. He dogged her footfalls, following close behind, as if she'd steal something.
She sighed. Hopefully, she wouldn't have to become used to this treatment again. The last year of grieving had protected her from outsiders, and the years of having her late Mathew's guidance had almost made her forget.
She pressed her gloved fingertips against a jar colored lapis blue. "What type of soap is inside?"
The clerk pushed up his thick spectacles that had slid down his condescending nose. "A fine lavender. Very expensive, about four shillings a piece. Not so much for Cecil's widow."
Though she had the money to buy most things, years of thrift and haggling still pumped in her blood. She poked at the glass, tilting its heavy lid. The fragrance, honey-like, wafted from the pressed bars, stroking her nose. Surely, they had been made from Cecil spike lavandin — for nothing else could hold such strong perfume.
This had to be a sign from Mathew. He must approve of her actions to marry again in order to protect the son he'd so loved. She must buy the soap. She stroked the jar. "I'll take two pieces, and wrap it in paper. Make sure the scale is clear of fingers. I'd hate to pay more than what's necessary."
The man picked up the container. His head bobbed up and down as if it had taken this long to see past her face to her wealth. "I'll weigh this out ... ma'am, without a finger on the scale."
Half watching the clerk, half watching the window glass, she decided the store front was more interesting than the man's balding head. She filled her vision with the sea of sleek top hats and crisp bonnets passing through the Arcade. None of them an apparition. She sighed again, the tight grip of apprehension further loosing from her spine. The vision had been her nerves.
Slowly, carefully, and in full view of the clerk, she dipped her fingers into her reticule pulling out the foolscap letters she'd retrieved from the stationer. She flipped to the first, a thin sheet of light gray paper, and mouthed the address. This was the second correspondence from a man with the rank of squire to her marriage advertisement. Though his crisp writing of her name, Mrs. Cecil, denoted elegance, their meeting last week had been far from elegant. It had been dull, lifeless, and made worse by his obvious discomfort in talking with her. He hadn't even had the courage to hold her gaze.
Surely, between the folds sat a polite no, and for that she'd be grateful. Theodosia was in want of a man's protection, but a new husband needed to be like Mathew, a Boaz protector. Yes, one of those gentlemanly fellows who cherished family above everything and who'd never be ashamed to be seen with her son.
What if it was a yes? She tapped the second letter to her bosom. If she had another offer she'd get her friend Ester to help pen a rejection to the squire. Ester's chaste brain had to be filled with clever ways of saying no.
Chuckling silently, she switched to the next response. This one addressed her advertisement number not her name. A first correspondence. New air filled her chest.
The primrose-colored paper felt thick beneath her fingers, and the thick glob of red wax sealing the note held an indentation of a crest. Could it be from a gentleman? Maybe someone titled? Maybe this could be the man who would stand up for her boy. The notion of such decency lifted her lips, even the bottom one she chewed when nervous or frightened.
"Mada ... Mrs. Cecil." The shopkeeper's impatient voice sounded, cutting through her woolgathering. "I've more paper in the back. Another minute."
The heat from her kid glove made the wax melt a little. She should open it now and read the particulars, his age and situation, but having her dearest friends' dueling perspectives would help make sure she wasn't getting too excited. All the money in the world could not make a man want to father a sickly child and wouldn't help fight for the boy's interests.
Loud voices sounded from the backroom. The door opened and a shaking Sally came out. The blonde twisted her hands within her long apron. The stocky clerk passed in front of her and stood behind the counter. "That will be eight shillings."
Theodosia shoved her letters under the crook of her arm and fished out a half guinea.
The bright shine of the gold coin reflected in his widened eyes. They bulged like greedy hot air balloons. "Is there anything else you wish to buy?"
She shook her head and waited for two shillings and sixpence change. Everything her late husband had told her was true — money trumped questions. Pity all men weren't like her honest Mathew, or dreamers like her apparition. No, most were manipulative, lying as soon as they opened their mouths.
She picked up her package, shifting the treasure between her palms, and looked at the hurt painting the shop girl's face. She looked like Theodosia had used to look, contemplating the wrong choices. That couldn't happen. She flicked the edge of her parcel, making a hole. "Sir, might I have more paper? I don't want to lose these."
The man slapped the counter. "Aye. Picky. Seems money makes you the same as the rest."
Theodosia bit her tongue, then her lip, to keep a tart reply inside her mouth. She needed a moment alone with the girl.
As soon as the clerk headed into the back, Theodosia came alongside her. "Sally, was it? If you ever need an honest job, where you will be paid fairly for a good day's work, come visit Cecil Farms. Tell them Mrs. Cecil said to hire you. Whatever you decide, come to our Flora Festival in a few weeks." She dipped into her reticule and gave her three shillings to pay for transportation. The farm was a post ride out of London.
Amber eyes smiled at her. "Thank you, Mrs. Cecil."
The man returned, harrumphed, then settled the jar between them on the shelf. "Here's your paper, ma'am."
Theodosia took the blue material and carefully wrapped her soaps. Feeling good at being able to help another, she turned to the door. "Thank you, sir." Keeping another woman from making mistakes would honor Mathew's memory. Even Ewan's ghost would smile, if the shop girl could find a way to dream.
As she stepped back into the crowded throughway, her letters slipped and landed near a man's boot. She bent to retrieve them, but the fellow grabbed them first and held them out to her.
"Thank you." The words crawled out slowly as her gaze traveled up his bottle-green waistcoat and broad chest, past his lean cravat and thick neck, to a familiar scar on his chin. She didn't need to see his thick, wavy, raven hair. She stopped at his eyes, the bluest eyes, bluer than the sky stirred clean by a thunderstorm.
"It is you, Theo," said the man.
Her heart ceased beating. Theodosia looked down to see if it had flopped outside of her stiff corset. Ewan Fitzwilliam stood in front of her. He wasn't dead. Didn't look the least bit distressed or deceased from the war. And he was no ghost, unless hell made apparitions look this good.
* * *
Six years had passed since Ewan Fitzwilliam had seen this beauty. The last time, the locks of her long, straight hair — a gift from her father, an Asian junk sailor, who'd been portside long enough to purchase companionship — had been free about her shoulders. Her deep bronzed skin, a blessing of the negress mother she'd barely known, had been exposed at her throat from a hastily put-on blouse. Her wide almond-shaped eyes, onyx pools of decadent wonder, had been afraid, like now. "Theo, the Flower Seller."
Chewing on her bottom lip, she nodded and blinked her lengthy, silky lashes, hiding the largest irises he'd ever seen. Before, those eyes had captivated him. He'd thought them passion-sated, but now, he knew them to be big with avarice, another of her deceptive guises. "It's been a long time, Theo."
She nodded and maybe took a breath, but still said nothing.
One look at her expensive frock, the tailored obsidian-colored walking dress that sculpted her hourglass form, and any doubt of her greed left his jaded heart. The sands of time had been good to her curvy form, and Theo had used her womanly wiles to attain wealth. Despite her humble background, she was no different than the ladies Ewan had met at the balls his mother forced him to attend. All were young women seeking advancement or larger purses, something a second son didn't possess. "Six years and you have nothing to say to me?"
"You died." Her alto voice dropped lower. "You are dead. An apparition."
"Very much alive. You look to be breathing, too. Barely."
She squinted and shifted the ribbons of her bonnet. "Whatever you are, can I have my letters? Then you may return to being dead."
Playfully, he waved the sealed papers fanning his chin. "Can you, or may you? A woman should know her capabilities. You know, like the ability to deceive."
He waited for her to respond. His Theo would offer a stinging retort, something with fire.
But this woman stood still, her fingers hovered inches from his as if she were afraid to take the letters. This wasn't his Theo.
Nonetheless, when she bit her lip again, he knew the folded notes held some importance for her. Out of habit, he swept them farther away, tucking them close to the revers of his tailcoat. Would this new Theo reach for something that was hers?
The woman glanced to the left and then to the right, but did not move. Part of him soured even more. Yes, she'd been shy when they'd first met, but never this cautious, not with him. This wasn't the girl he'd ruined himself over. Perhaps she had never existed, just a novel characterization his playwright mind had invented. "Are you sure these belong to you? Let me check for a name."
He read the markings on the folded papers and burned at the written name, Mrs. Cecil. "It doesn't say Theo the Flower Seller, but Mrs. Cecil. Is that you?"
She put a hand to her hip. "Yes. Give me those letters."
Excerpted from "The Bittersweet Bride"
Copyright © 2018 Vanessa Riley.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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