After discovering her fiancé in the arms of a courtesan, Lady Athena McAlister comes to a frightful realization: Most men prefer the company of their mistresses to their wives. How can she, and other brides-to-be, become both wife and mistress to a man? In her quest for knowledge, she begs her grandfather to let her start a finishing school for marriageable ladies. There she and her friends discreetly invite London's most notorious rakes to educate them on the art of seducing a man.
Marshall Hawkesworth's sister has become far too knowledgeable about the ways of sex, and he suspects that her new finishing school is to blame. Marshall poses as a lecturer on several topics, including sensual kissing, and he soon finds Lady Athena to be a most apt pupil. But before he has her school shut down for good, he's determined to give her a few private lessons she won't soon forget…
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About the Author
MICHELLE MARCOS is a native of Miami, Florida. Having worked as both an English teacher and an actress, she writes romance to celebrate perfect love.
MICHELLE MARCOS is the author of Secrets to Seducing a Scot and one previous trilogy with St. Martin's Press. A native of Miami, Florida, she's worked as both an English teacher and an actress, and she writes romance to celebrate perfect love.
Read an Excerpt
Wickedly Ever After
By Michelle Marcos
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Michelle Marcos
All rights reserved.
Twice upon a time, Athena McAllister thought she had found the man of her dreams.
The first time it happened she was fifteen years old. He was sixteen, blond-haired, and beautiful, the second son of a viscount who was on holiday from boarding school abroad. He spoke to her politely, as a proper young gentleman should, but stared over her ginger-colored head at a lovelier young woman at the ball.
At nineteen she met another man, a viscount in his own right. He was twenty, blond-haired, and beautiful, and he expressed nothing but admiration for her fiery coloring. He spoke of his travels to Italy and America, and when the music started, stepped around her generous form to dance with a lovelier young woman at the ball.
It was, therefore, with some trepidation that she regarded the blond-haired and beautiful Calvin Bretherton, whose manner and clothes bespoke generations of wealth that she now lacked. At twenty-eight, Athena was well past marrying years, and everyone expected her to live out her life in aristocratic penury. But the earl was looking for a wife, and Athena gave in to that frustrating yet lingering hope that he might be her final chance to marry well — let alone marry at all.
Hester looked over at her friend as she handed her a glass of wine. "You've got the look of a cat that's spotted an unsuspecting bird. Who are you staring at?"
Athena took a sip, and the sweet wine burst flavor into her dry mouth. "No one."
Hester pursed her lips as her eyes scanned the cluster of men across the ballroom. "There's General Thomason, Lord Ryebrook, the bishop ... can't be the bishop."
Athena smiled and rolled her eyes. "Behind him."
Hester squinted her dark eyes. "Hmm. Lord Stockdale. Very handsome indeed. I know his family well. He gets his looks from his mother, you know."
Athena smirked. "I bet he gets looks from lots of women."
Hester chuckled. "I've always been partial to men with blue eyes. Let's sit down. Perhaps he'll come over and introduce himself."
Athena took her place beside Hester in the knot of chairs near the fireplace — the potpourri corner, she called it — where the dowagers, spinsters, and other dried-out women congregated. She smiled wanly at the conversation between the Baroness Basinghall, a great turtle of a woman, and her unmarried last daughter, an equally grating bore, on which teas are the best cures for headaches and how to make poultices for bunions.
But her own eyes kept drifting to the object of her growing aspiration. Calvin threw his head back and laughed at something the general said. She smiled. His cheeks curled over a row of perfect white teeth, and just for a moment, Athena pictured them smiling at her. The burgundy coat hugged his form, revealing long, muscular arms that would feel heavenly wrapped around her. And those sky-blue eyes, so charismatic and beautiful, gazing at her in smoky desire ... Athena exhaled, reveling in the imagined pleasure.
Suddenly, Calvin glanced in her direction, and her heart missed a beat. Dream materialized into reality as he broke away from the group of men and walked toward her. Time seemed to slow as she watched him stride over, her pulse racing. Her breath came out in nervous gasps.
His smile widened as he neared, and Athena blinked shyly. He was utterly delicious ... like a thick slice of marchpane cake. All her confidence dissolved under that assertively handsome gaze. Her customary proud boast that she needed no man, flung to clucking matrons, evaporated in the flame of anticipation as Calvin's perfect body approached her.
And in a blink of her bashful green eyes, Calvin's perfect body passed her completely. He stopped in front of two willowy French ladies on the opposite end of the ballroom and bowed before them.
Athena's heart sank. As an adolescent, being overlooked like that might have punctured her fragile confidence for months. But she was a woman now. Her confidence was no longer rooted in beauty. She was, after all, a well-read and intelligent woman. If Calvin Bretherton would just speak to her, maybe she could persuade him that she was worthy of his attention.
"Please excuse me, ladies." Athena set down her glass and stood up.
"Where are you going?" whispered Hester.
"He's not coming over to me, so I shall just have to go over to him."
Hester moved in front of her, blocking her escape. "Are you mad? You can't walk up to a man and introduce yourself! You mustn't be so forward."
"I can't very well hope to snag a husband if I remain shoved up against a wall like an old rag mop."
"Athena, it's been too long since you've been at a ball in London. There are certain rules of conduct you must observe. You must behave with the decorum befitting your years and reduced circumstances."
"You make me sound like an old carthorse. There's life in me yet, Hester."
Hester's delicate black eyebrows drew together as her anxious eyes looked around. "I just ask that you consider what people might say. For someone like you, it's only a whisper from spinster to prostitute."
Athena sighed. Hester was right — reputation was monumentally important. At least as a spinster, she'd still be asked to parties like this one. If she lost her claim to respectability, life would be even lonelier than it was at present. Good manners demanded that she sit quietly in the company of other widowed, single, and unescorted ladies until a gentleman approached her. It so seldom happened, and never by the gentlemen she truly wanted to meet. And that had become her lot in life ... condemned by propriety to inexperience.
She watched the two brunette sisters, charming Calvin with their singsong zh-zh'd words. As they batted their thick black eyelashes at him and giggled co-quettishly behind their mother-of-pearl fans, she sat back down among the black-clad, bunioned gaggle of women.
If only.CHAPTER 2
"You're scowling, Mason."
Her Grace the Duchess of Twillingham perched her cup delicately inside the saucer. Her flinty brown eyes had snapped to Mason Royce, the Baron Penhaligan, and it was enough to make a man of his advanced years feel as uncomfortable as a schoolboy.
"I know my granddaughter, Your Grace." His papery hands flicked open the book and sifted through the pages. "To get her to read this will be like drawing a cat to a barrel of water."
The duchess swung a disapproving glance around the room, her eyes resting on the worn carpet, the unlit fireplace, and a book on the floor that was propping up a crippled sideboard. "She more than anyone I know stands to benefit from its teachings."
Mason sighed into the frayed armchair across from the duchess. "Athena has very strong opinions of her own."
"All the more reason to oblige her to conform. She must achieve a level of sophistication. If you leave her out in the country much longer, it'll be the ruin of her. Heaven knows ... she'll probably let herself be covered by some farmer or other."
"Athena isn't like that, Maggie."
"Let me have a talk with the girl."
"She doesn't respond to coercion," he warned.
A nest of wrinkles appeared at her mouth. "You always were softhearted, Mason. No wonder that granddaughter of yours is so indomitable. You've done her no favors by being so lenient. Look at her now ... twenty-eight and perilously unwed. There's only you to blame for that."
"She's not like other girls, Maggie. She's ... different."
The duchess jerked her head upward, making the curl of feathers in her bonnet wave. "She's no different from any other woman. If she desires to marry into the nobility, she must learn how to behave in polite society. No man will shackle himself to a waspish woman. But if she should desire my sponsorship, she must first gain a measure of modesty, delicacy, and humility. Bring her to me. I know I can get her to see reason."
Mason shook his grizzled head but rang for the servant anyway.
Out in the field, the servant whispered something to Athena. With a brief shake of her head, Athena set down her paintbrush in front of the half-finished canvas and stood up.
Moments later, Athena appeared in the morning room, her artist's pinafore alive with colors.
"You sent for me, Grandfather?"
The old man rose. "Athena. Yes, come inside. May I present Margaret, Duchess of Twillingham. Your Grace, this is my granddaughter, Athena McAllister."
Her Grace was a regal-looking woman, even in her sixties. Tight curls in streaks of black and gray peeked out from underneath her bonnet. Her eyebrows had almost disappeared, leaving only a wide swath of forehead lined in multiple directions. But when her dark eyes alighted on Athena, the duchess looked at her as if she had suddenly grown a third arm and an extra pair of legs.
"What in heaven has happened to your dress?"
Athena looked down at her smeared frock, smiling sheepishly. "I'm sorry. I was in the field ... finishing a painting of a dying tree."
"Was it necessary to get into such a state?"
"I'm sorry. I hadn't expected anyone to call today."
The duchess adjusted the ruff of her primrose-colored spencer. "I can see that I have come not a second too soon. You see, Mason, this is exactly the sort of fatal carelessness to which I was referring. Miss McAllister, in polite society, a lady should always be prepared to receive visitors between the hours of three o'clock and five. You, on the other hand, look prepared to serve as a pig farmer's hired hand."
Athena recoiled, her full lips thinning. "I have found, Your Grace, that in polite society, people are either charmingly superficial or tediously so. I aspire to be neither."
"I'll thank you to hold a civil tongue, Miss McAllister. A dirty frock does a lady no credit. A woman that does not demonstrate concern for her appearance may as well be dismissed out of hand. As, apparently, you have been."
Mason cleared his throat. "Athena, Her Grace is a very dear friend of mine. We've known each other since we were children. Because of that long friendship, Her Grace has very graciously offered to help make a match for you. She has agreed to sponsor you in Society, and help find a suitable husband for you. Dresses, entertainments, social engagements — she is willing to support you in all facets of this endeavor. And given our limited resources, I'm sure you will be as grateful as I am."
Athena crossed her paint-smeared hands in front of her, suspicious of such unsolicited generosity. "Of course. Thank you for that kindhearted gesture, Your Grace."
Mason collected the book from the tea table and placed it into Athena's rainbowed hands. "And she has already brought you a gift."
Athena looked at the cover and her eyebrows drew together. "Feminine Excellence, or Every Young Woman's Guide to Ladylike Comportment."
"If you are to find a husband," said the duchess, "I insist that you read and learn that book."
Athena bristled. "Thank you for the gift, Your Grace, but I think it may be wasted on me. At the risk of sounding immodest, I don't believe I am in need of learning excellence."
The older woman rested both hands on the knob of her cane. "That is more than immodest. That sounds absolutely prideful. Especially when it is apparent how many qualities you have which are in need of refinement. If it will make you feel any better, you are not the only one being given this book. All the unmarried ladies this Season are being required to learn the principles outlined by Countess Cavendish in her book. The Ladies Patronesses of Almack's have given this book their seal of approval. I realize you did not have a proper come-out, and that cannot be helped. But because of the great personal regard I have for your grandfather, and out of consideration for the absence of female guidance in your life, I will personally take it upon myself to introduce you to Society — provided, of course, you do nothing to humiliate me."
It rankled Athena to be thought a charity case. "I'd like to say how grateful I am, Your Grace." But the words were getting stuck in her throat. "I'm just not certain that reading a book like that will make me into the sort of woman I long to be."
The older woman banged her ivory cane on the floor. "The only kind of woman you ought to be is the married kind. If dispelling the horrible disgrace of being a spinster isn't enough inducement, then at least think of your grandfather. You're the only daughter of an only daughter. The Penhaligan name will be extinguished when he dies. Do you want his bloodline extinguished, too?"
"Of course not. I shall marry if and when the right man comes along."
The duchess stared at Athena with her cold, dark eyes, increasing Athena's discomfort. "Mason, would you kindly give us a few moments to talk in private?"
"By all means." He rose and walked away from the tense exchange, and closed the parlor door behind him. Athena keenly felt his absence. It was like being left in a room with a growling lion.
"Miss McAllister, let us speak candidly. The prospects you offer as a wife are severely compromised. You're well beyond a desirable age, insubordinate, podgy, and redheaded. You've no title of your own — oh, I know your father was a viscount, but he was a Scottish viscount, which in this country is almost a strike against you. Moreover, your grandfather isn't exactly in the best financial circumstances, leaving even a healthy dowry past your ability to produce. Miss McAllister, let us face facts. You have absolutely nothing to offer a prospective husband."
Athena cast her eyes to the floor, her chin jutting in impotent defiance. She knew all these things, and had said these hurtful words to herself many times. But to hear them come out of a stranger's mouth stung far more.
"And to further complicate matters," the duchess continued, "your grandfather has told me that you have cultivated the romantic notion that you would only marry for love. Now, while I do not disparage this concept, like all ideals, it is elusive and unpragmatic."
Athena was about to argue, but the duchess halted her.
"Nevertheless, it has come to my attention that you have developed feelings for a certain man named Calvin Bretherton."
Athena's eyes widened. "How did you —"
The duchess waved her question away. "You will find that there is little that is left undiscovered when one frequents Almack's."
Athena's face colored in humiliation. While true that she had harbored a secret passion for Calvin these many weeks, she suffered to think it was common knowledge. The more she had learned about Calvin, the more she desired him. He was everything she ever wanted in a man — clever, witty, modern in his thinking, and as beautiful a man as she had ever laid eyes on. But the truth was she didn't know how to entice his suit. Her parents died when she was ten, and she had grown up in the company of her grandfather, so the feminine art of seduction was never taught to her. If, indeed, it was something to be learned.
"I know that you have been stunted in your development as a woman," the duchess continued rather astutely, "but this book will show you how to acquire what you lack. I stand in favor of your encouraging Bretherton's advances. But I must warn you that if you wish to endeavor to turn this calf love for Bretherton into a proposal of marriage, you will have some work to do on improving your chances. The competition this Season shall be stiff. I have it on good authority that Bretherton is being targeted by no less than five different ladies of my acquaintance for their daughters." The duchess picked up the book from the table. "Nevertheless, with my personal sponsorship, I think his parents will look favorably upon you, as will he. But only if you can offer him the prospect of a proper wife."
Athena took the book from the duchess's silk-gloved hand. Her confidence was in tatters, and this book promised only more frustrated hopes. "If I am up against all these other more qualified women, why would Calvin even consider me?"
"Because unlike them, you will have me to champion your cause."
Athena turned the book over in her hand. She knew that men were after more than sparkling, intelligent conversation. She knew she was at fault for doing and thinking things a proper lady mustn't. She knew she was guilty of being herself.
Maybe there was something to be gained after all from Countess Cavendish's instruction. Maybe the reason it all didn't make sense was because she just had never learned the language of artifice and coquetry.
She would give anything to become the wife of Calvin Bretherton. And if all it cost her was the reading of a book, then it was certainly a price she'd be willing to pay.
Excerpted from Wickedly Ever After by Michelle Marcos. Copyright © 2009 Michelle Marcos. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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