Against the scandal and seduction of Regency England, New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh introduces an extraordinary family — the fiery, sensual Huxtables. Vanessa is the second daughter, proud and daring, a young widow who has her own reason for pursuing the most eligible bachelor in London. One that has nothing to do with love. Or does it? The arrival of Elliott Wallace, the irresistibly eligible Viscount Lyngate, has thrown the country village of Throckbridge into a tizzy. Desperate to rescue her eldest sister from a loveless union, Vanessa Huxtable Dew offers herself instead. In need of a wife, Elliott takes the audacious widow up on her unconventional proposal while he pursues an urgent mission of his own. But a strange thing happens on the way to the wedding night. Two strangers with absolutely nothing in common can’t keep their hands off each other. Now, as intrigue swirls around a past secret — one with a stunning connection to the Huxtables — Elliott and Vanessa are uncovering the glorious pleasures of the marriage bed…and discovering that when it comes to wedded bliss, love can’t be far behind.
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Mary Balogh is the New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Slightly series and Simply quartet of novels set at Miss Martin’s School for Girls, as well as many other beloved novels. She is also the author of First Comes Marriage, Then Comes Seduction, At Last Comes Love, and Seducing an Angel, all featuring the Huxtable family. A former teacher, she grew up in Wales and now lives in Canada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Everyone within five miles of the village of Throckbridge in Shropshire had been in a spirit of heightened sensibilities for the week or so preceding February 14. Someone—the exact identity of the person was undecided though at least half a dozen laid claim to the distinction—had suggested that an assembly be held at the rooms above the village inn this year in celebration of St. Valentine's Day since it seemed like forever since Christmas, and summer—the occasion of the annual fete and ball at Rundle Park—was way off in the future.
The suggestion having been made—by Mrs. Waddle, the apothecary's wife, or Mr. Moffett, Sir Humphrey Dew's steward, or Miss Aylesford, spinster sister of the vicar, or by one of the other claimants—no one could quite explain why such an entertainment had never been thought of before. But since it had been thought of this year, no one was in any doubt that the Valentine's assembly would become an annual event in the village.
All were agreed that it was an inspired idea, even—or perhaps especially—those children who were not quite old enough to attend this year despite vociferous protests to the adults who made the rules. The youngest attendee was to be Melinda Rotherhyde, fifteen years old and allowed to go only because she was the youngest of the Rotherhyde brood and there could be no question of leaving her at home alone. And also allowed to attend, a few more critical voices added, because the Rotherhydes had always been overindulgent with all their offspring.
The youngest male was to be Stephen Huxtable. He was only seventeen, though there was never really any question of his not attending. Despite his youth, he was a favorite of females of all ages. Melinda in particular had sighed over him since the very moment three years before when she had been forced to renounce him as a frequent playmate because her mama had deemed their romping together no longer fitting considering their advancing ages and differing genders.
On the day of the assembly there was intermittent rain throughout the daylight hours, though nothing worse than that despite the dire prediction of six feet of snow that elderly Mr. Fuller had prophesied with much squinting and head nodding after church the previous Sunday. The assembly rooms above the inn had been dusted and swept, the wall sconces fitted with new candles, fires laid in the large hearths that faced each other across the room, and the pianoforte tested to see that it was still in tune—though no one had thought to wonder what would happen if it were not since the tuner lived twenty miles distant. Mr. Rigg brought his violin, tuned it, and played it for a while to limber up his fingers and get the feel of the room and its acoustics. Women brought food in quantities sufficient to stuff the five thousand so full that they would be prostrate for a week—or so Mr. Rigg declared as he sampled a jam tart and a few slices of cheese before having his hand slapped only half playfully by his daughter-in-law.
Throughout the village women and girls crimped and curled all day long and changed their minds half a dozen times about the gowns they would wear before inevitably settling upon their original choice. Almost all the unmarried women below the age of thirty—and a number of those of more advanced years—dreamed of St. Valentine and the possibilities of romance his day might bring this year if only...
Well, if only some Adonis would appear out of nowhere to sweep them off their feet. Or, failing that, if only some favored male acquaintance would deign to dance with them and notice their superior charms and..._
Well, it was Valentine's Day.
And throughout the village men pretended to a yawning indifference to the whole tedious business of the assembly but made sure that their dancing shoes were polished and their evening coats brushed and the hands of the women of their choice solicited for the opening set. After all, the fact that this was St. Valentine's Day was sure to make the ladies a little more amenable to flirtation than they usually were.
Those too elderly either to dance or to flirt or to dream of romance on their own account looked forward to a good-sized gathering of gossips and card players—and to the sumptuous feast that was always the best part of village assemblies.
Apart from a few disgruntled older children, then, there was scarcely anyone who did not look forward to the evening's revelries with either open excitement or suppressed enthusiasm.
There was one notable exception.
"A village assembly, for the love of God!" Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate, was sprawled in his chair an hour before the event was due to begin, one long, booted leg hooked over the arm and swinging impatiently. "Could we have chosen a less auspicious day for our arrival here if we had tried, George?"
George Bowen, who was standing before the fire warming his hands, grinned at the coals.
"Tripping the light fantastic with a roomful of village maidens is not your idea of fine entertainment?" he asked. "Perhaps it is just what we need, though, to blow away the cobwebs after the long journey."
Viscount Lyngate fixed his secretary and friend with a steady gaze.
"We? The wrong pronoun, my dear fellow," he said. "You may feel the need to jig the night away. I would prefer a bottle of good wine, if any such commodity is available at this apology for an inn, the fire blazing up the chimney, and an early bed if no more congenial occupation presents itself. A village hop is not my idea of a more congenial occupation. In my experience those pastoral idylls one reads in which village maidens are not only numerous but also fair and buxom and rosy-cheeked and willing are entirely fictitious and not worth the paper they are written on. You will be dancing with ferret-faced matrons and their plain, simpering daughters, George, be warned. And making lame conversation with a dozen gentlemen with even duller minds than that of Sir Humphrey Dew."
That was admittedly a nasty thing to say. Sir Humphrey had been genial and hospitable. And dull.
"You will keep to your rooms, then?" George was still grinning. "They might be vibrating to the sounds of fiddles and laughter for half the night, old chap."
Viscount Lyngate combed the fingers of one hand through his hair, sighing audibly as he did so. His leg continued to swing.
"Even that might be preferable to being led about on display like a performing monkey," he said. "Why could we not have come tomorrow, George? Tomorrow would have done just as well."
"So would yesterday," his friend pointed out with great good sense. "But the fact is that we came today."
Elliott scowled. "But if we had come yesterday," he said, "we might have been on our way home by now, our business accomplished, our young cub in tow."
"I doubt it will be as easy as you seem to expect," George Bowen said. "Even cubs need time to digest news they are not expecting and to pack their bags and bid their fond farewells. Besides, there are his sisters."
"Three of them." Elliott rested his elbow on the arm of the chair and propped his face in his hand. "But they are bound to be every bit as delighted as he. How could they not? They will be ecstatic. They will fall all over themselves in their haste to get him ready to leave with us at the earliest possible moment."
"For a man who has sisters of his own," George said dryly, "you are remarkably optimistic, Elliott. Do you really believe they will happily gather on their doorsill within the next day or two to wave their only brother on his way forever? And that then they will be willing to carry on with their lives here as if nothing untoward had happened? Is it not far more likely they will want to darn all his stockings and sew him half a dozen new shirts and... Well, and perform a thousand and one other useful and useless tasks?"
"Dash it all!" Elliott drummed his fingers on his raised thigh. "I have been trying to ignore the possibility that they might be an inconvenience, George. As females are more often than not. How simple and easy life would be without them. Sometimes I feel the distinct call of the monastery."
His friend looked at him incredulously and then laughed in open amusement mingled with derision.
"I know a certain widow who would go into deep mourning and an irreversible decline if you were to do that," he said. "Not to mention every unmarried lady of the ton below the age of forty. And their mamas. And did you not inform me as recently as yesterday on the journey down here that your main order of business during the coming Season is going to have to be the choosing of a bride?"
Elliott grimaced. "Yes, well," he said, his fingers pausing for a moment and then drumming faster. "The monastery may call with wistful invitation, George, but you are quite right—duty positively shouts it down, in the unmistakable voice of my grandfather. I promised him at Christmas... And of course he was quite right. It is time I married, and the deed will be done this year to coincide more or less with my thirtieth birthday. Nasty things, thirtieth birthdays."
He scowled in anticipation of the happy event, and his fingers beat a positive tattoo against his thigh.
"Perish the thought," he added.
Especially since his grandfather had made a specific point of informing him that Mrs. Anna Bromley-Hayes, Elliott's mistress of two years, simply would not do as his bride. Not that he had needed his grandfather to tell him that. Anna was beautiful and voluptuous and marvelously skilled in the bedroom arts, but she had also had a string of lovers before him, some of them while Bromley-Hayes ...
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