Hailed for her “wicked wit and exquisite sensuality” (Booklist), Jillian Hunter, the New York Times bestselling author of the Boscastle Affairs novels and the Bridal Pleasures novels returns with the Fenwick Sisters Affairs, her ravishing new series of four sisters bound by fortune, romance, and scandal....
Lady Ivy Fenwick is desperate. Since her father’s fatal duel, she and her sisters have sold off every valuable possession to make ends meet. With the manor stripped bare, Ivy has one last resort: Apply as governess to the Duke of Ellsworth’s wards.
James should have known better than to hire the desirable lady who had fallen on hard times—and who tempts him at every turn. As her employer, he tries valiantly to remain noble and not let a kiss they shared as strangers years ago entice him. Yet the more he learns of Ivy’s secrets, the more he wants her. And when another suitor proves aggressive, James is confronted with a challenge: Surrender Ivy or fight for the woman he’s come to love against all odds, knowing that it takes a scoundrel to trump a scoundrel.
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Jillian Hunter is the author of more than twenty-five critically acclaimed novels, among them the bestselling Boscastle Affairs Series and the Bridal Pleasures Series. She has received several awards, including the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three daughters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Praise for Jillian Hunter’s
Boscastle Affairs Series
ALSO BY JILLIAN HUNTER
As always, a huge thank-you to my agent, Mel Berger, for his support and insight.
Also, a special thank-you to my editor, Kerry Donovan, for staying on board with the book until her own production schedule took precedence.
I am grateful to Isabel Farhi and Claire Zion for filling in during my editor’s absence and to the art department for creating yet another wonderful cover.
James had pursued his alluring prey midway to the ladies’ retiring room. A black silk mask concealed half his face, but the more experienced guests at the masquerade ball knew his identity. A duke’s heir rarely went unnoticed at a party, especially when he paid attention to a particular lady. To his amusement, the object of his infatuation seemed to be the exception.
The lady acted unconcerned by his pursuit, perhaps even oblivious to his interest. She hadn’t once glanced over her shoulder or faltered in her steps to show she cared that she’d captured his fickle attention. She swept down the corridor like a princesse royale, oblivious to whoever fell or trailed in her wake.
He admired her demeanor. Was it possible she was blithely unaware of his existence? He had to remedy that situation before he had half the guests at his heels. But he was starting to wonder whether he wasn’t hunting her as much as she was leading him somewhere.
She certainly wasn’t dressed to entice a man. Her skirts belled out over a metal-framed Elizabethan farthingale that bumped a pair of footmen on either side from her hurried path. It was quite the costume. If James hadn’t become so instantly enamored of her angelic face, he might not have gone on the chase with so many tiresome debutantes warning her, between giggles, that a scoundrel had her in his sights.
“Hurry up, my lady!”
“He’s going to catch you.”
“Do you want us to escort you?”
“She isn’t from London,” one of them whispered to another, looking at James through a bejeweled mask. “He’ll take advantage of her innocence.”
The silly geese dispersed as soon as he approached her—his personal attendants had made an art of protecting his privacy. They crowded the hall until he caught her by the hand and led her to a corner beyond the betraying lights of the wall sconces.
He neglected to ask her name, or to speak at all, while memorizing her face. And he ignored her initial resistance as he pulled her into his arms and kissed the lovely mouth that had lit an unbankable fire in his blood. Her body refused to mold to his, but neither did she push him away. The feather in her tall hat poked him in the eye. As soon as he had noticed her in the ballroom, he had wanted to take her home and remove her square-necked Elizabethan lady’s costume. But now he realized she was too young to dishonor, as badly as he desired her, and beyond that, he’d enlisted in the infantry. She would belong to someone else when he returned home.
Stolen kisses on this night would have to suffice.
“Sir, I don’t even know who you are,” she whispered when he gave her a moment to breathe.
“If I told you, would you allow me greater liberties?”
She laughed at his bold question, evidently delighted at the prospect of a season of romance and gentlemen to vanquish ahead of her. “I should warn you—my father has a hot temper.”
“I have a hot temperament.” Which she did nothing to cool. How could he offer her anything except trouble when he was about to leave for war? He brushed his hand down her back, over her stiff skirt and petticoats, then around and up to her bodice, seeking the true shape of her body. She was well built, and he laughed at the delicate hand that arrested his quest.
“That’s quite enough.”
“Not for me.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“Isn’t it better sometimes not to know?”
“I couldn’t say. I’ve never attended a masquerade.”
He stared down into her sweetly indignant face and proceeded to ravish her tempting mouth until the rumble of background voices forced him to release her. He had acted rashly, and it was his responsibility to protect her reputation. After all, she was presumably at the ball to find a husband.
He brought his hand to her warm cheek, murmuring, “My body servants will stand as a barricade for you to slip away. I’m sorry if I offended you, but I simply couldn’t resist. And I’m not sorry that I kissed you. Tell me the truth—are you? Do you regret my actions this evening?”
He knew even before she replied that she wasn’t. He’d felt the shivers she had tried to control when they kissed. Still, he didn’t expect a lady to willingly admit that she had shared his inexplicable surge of desire.
She surprised him with her answer. “I’ll tell you the truth,” she said under her breath. “This was my first kiss. From what I’ve heard, as far as first kisses go, yours was fairly decent. But if you try anything like this ever again, I will call you out. I won’t let you kiss me a second time. My father is looking for a husband for me tonight. I’m his eldest daughter, and that’s all you need to know.”
“You’re everything a lady should avoid.”
“I might be.”
“Well, it’s never too late to repent.”
“At my age? I have absolutely no intention. Save the sermon for the next rake you meet.”
“I’ll tell you something else,” she whispered. “It’s a good thing I can’t see your face, because in the event that someone has seen us together, I can’t identify you to my father.”
He laughed. “Or to your future husband, who, it is becoming apparent, must kiss decently and be on his guard against scoundrels like me. You do have a delicious mouth. Are you certain I can’t entice you to meet me in a more private spot at midnight?”
“This is my debut,” she said, with a catch in her voice. “Would you ruin it for me? Would you ruin me for the rest of my life for your passing pleasure?”
He crushed her to him, closed his eyes for an agonizing moment, and released her with a regret he’d never known he could feel. “I suppose it’s too much to ask you to remain pure another few years?”
She laughed again. “If you had your way, I wouldn’t remain innocent for the rest of the night.”
“Let’s make a bargain.”
She shook her head, the feather in her hat tickling his nose again. “I don’t think so.”
“Hear me out first.”
“Hurry, then. I’ve left my sister alone in the ballroom.”
“If you don’t have five proposals by noon tomorrow, I shall offer for your hand.”
Her eyes widened. “Now I know you’re mad.”
And at that moment he let her slip away, unable to disagree, convincing himself it was for the best. What did he want with a woman who made him lose his head?
* * *
Ivy had felt quite beautiful during the short interlude with the masked stranger, bedazzled by his attentions. In fact, she so wanted to believe the scoundrel had meant what he said that she made one excuse after another not to dance with anyone else for the remainder of the night. If they spotted each other across the room and he broke through the crowd of dancers to reach her, well, she wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next in a romance.
She expected there was a good chance that she’d catch him flirting with another lady, in which case she would simply stand with all the poise she could muster, smiling until her face ached, and count the hours until she could escape.
At least she wasn’t alone in the crowded ballroom. She had an ally at her side; of her three sisters only Rosemary had been old enough to accompany her to the ball. Rosemary had met a young gentleman, too, one who shared her passion for literature but was too shy to ask her to dance, and he had disappeared when his aunt complained that she had felt a need for air.
Ivy hadn’t yet dared to confess to Rosemary what had happened, but of course one day she would. She wanted to savor the secret for the evening and not appear gullible in Rosemary’s eyes. Her sister could be counted on to lecture Ivy for behavior beneath the Earl of Arthur’s eldest daughter, and then, even worse, she would demand that Ivy describe every detail of the rake’s kisses so that she could include it in one of her future novels.
Ivy doubted she could describe the alchemical transformation she had undergone in the stranger’s arms. The magic of it still shimmered through her veins. She intended to keep it private for as long as possible.
What a bounder.
“Ivy?” Rosemary nudged her. “Who are you looking for?”
“Who—oh. Papa, I suppose.”
“He’s upstairs gambling.” Rosemary unsuccessfully attempted to fit her skirts into a Chippendale chair. “Bother. Are you enjoying yourself?”
Ivy nodded. “Yes. I think so. And you?”
“It’s amazing how much one can learn about life from watching what goes on in a ballroom. I’d love to take a stroll down the corridors. Are you game?”
“Not in these skirts. I’d rather remain here and observe the crowd.”
Just before the midnight supper the evening’s festivities turned ugly. Another debutante, one who had attended the same boarding school as Ivy, had been caught in a bedroom with a married baronet. Ivy comforted her in the retiring room while the other girls talked of nothing but her disgusting behavior. Later Ivy persuaded herself she should feel fortunate that she had not been witnessed in an indiscretion herself. After the guests had settled down from the excitement, her father’s footman appeared during the supper and the two sisters were whisked home to the town house.
By the next morning their father, Thomas Fenwick, the Earl of Arthur, had been accused of cheating at cards and killed in a duel. In the rush of sorrow that followed, the scoundrel’s kiss faded into a sweet memory that Ivy buried beneath her grief for so long that at times she even wondered whether it had happened at all.
The Duke of Ellsworth met his match on a Tuesday afternoon while plotting ways to pleasure the woman he had left only hours before in London. He anticipated months of uninterrupted bliss in a bedchamber where rather than producing an heir with a suitable wife he would concentrate on seducing a new mistress. He had gone to war, survived an injury that should have killed him, and returned to a dukedom that any man in England would envy. His tenants needed reassurance that he would carry on tradition. He was supposed to provide them with security through the hard times predicted for his country in the years ahead.
He planned to give a feast and toast his farmers with the potent apple cider that their orchards produced. Duty fulfilled, James then intended to submerge himself in months of uninterrupted sexual impropriety to purge his mind of the war he had fought and would still be fighting if a well-placed bullet hadn’t stopped him.
In less than a week he would be a satisfied man, one whose body was soothed by a woman’s attentions, not battered by every bump in the country road he’d insisted his coachman take. Why had he demanded this detour? he wondered as the carriage approached a small stone bridge.
He turned his head, remembering the reason with a jolt of surprise. To his right stood what centuries ago had been a majestic Tudor house. His father had admired the manor since James was a boy, and James had inherited the late duke’s appreciation of traditional English architecture.
Was it abandoned?
Could he purchase it for his mistress? She wouldn’t care for it, he decided. The house needed extensive repairs and would be too isolated for a lady accustomed to the bustle and excitement of London. Elora loved her parties. She thrived on the gossip of infidelities and jewel thefts and bankruptcies that brewed in the beau monde. She had attended more balls and routs than any woman he had ever known. She sought constant entertainment. He needed sex. Still, the steeply pitched roof and dormer windows intrigued him. Perhaps it would suit one of his aunts.
He noticed a hawk perched on the branch of one of the ancient oaks that ringed the manor. A bird of prey, the hawk kept its sight on an object in the garden below. What it was James couldn’t see. But he saw something else.
Was that a woman standing at the bottom of the garden? He banged hard on the carriage roof and opened the door before a footman could attend the task. He set his boots to the dirt road as the wheels stopped rolling.
The hawk remained motionless. He could not help but wonder again what innocent creature it had in its sights. He walked down a sloping path buried in leaves and passed a once-grand gatehouse.
“Your Grace?” said his coachman, a musket under his arm. “Shall I accompany you? I’ve heard stories about this house.”
“Tell me one.”
The coachman squinted up at the roof. “Dangerous women abide within. Women who bend men to their will.”
James grinned. “What is it they make their victims do?”
“Wicked things, from what I gather.”
“They sound like women I might like. Now I am compelled to continue.”
“And as for me?”
“Let me sacrifice myself first.”
He wandered into what remained of the original Tudor garden, a riotous shambles that threatened to consume the house. James predicted that in another year only the chimneys would rise above the thicket of thistle and rose, weed and bramble. From what he could see, it was only a matter of time before the roof collapsed into heaven only knew what lay beneath.
He’d never seen a caretaker or an occupant in the few times he’d driven by. But then who could find a human being in this overgrown mess? Hard to believe that the grounds had once been designed in geometric knots and patterns as precise as a chessboard.
He felt a sudden whimsy to ask his land agent about purchasing the place. Despite his coachman’s warning, the only rumor James could recall about the manor was that four spinsters lived within. Perhaps they would be amenable to an offer.
He blinked. The beguiling figure in white was half-hidden beneath an unsightly trailing arbor of honeysuckle vines. She stood completely still as if caught in a misdeed. Or was it a statue of a Greek goddess? He would have noticed such an anomaly on the Tudor estate before.
He cleared his throat, pushing an intrusive thorn out of his face. “Good afternoon,” he called out in a gruff but pleasant voice. “Allow me to introduce myself.”
The goddess came to life. Before he managed another word, she bent, scooped up a wriggling ball of fur, and fled up the path. James couldn’t decide whether she was a maidservant or a gentlewoman. She moved too spryly for a spinster. How irritating that she ran at his polite inquiry.
Ladies usually chased after James, especially when they discovered he was an eligible duke with nothing better to do than indulge their whims.
“Please,” he said, quickening his step. “All I wish is a few words with you.” Which might not be entirely true, but he couldn’t be certain of his own motives until he convinced the woman to give him a chance to introduce himself.
There was something about her that reminded him of the past, of sweet days lost and unappreciated. But that was fancy, the influence of the manor’s charm. She didn’t appear to feel this absurd connection.
She muttered something under her breath and gripped he...
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