on October 1st 2017
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"Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal."
Notorious rake Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is certain he'll win his Christmas bet—until he learns he'll be stealing Lady Elizabeth Wilding's kisses. A woman who refuses to be charmed!
Once jilted, Lizzie must guard her heart, because the ton is unaware of her scandalous secret—her son! Despite their increasing attraction, she can't risk the persistent Hal bringing down her defenses. But when her former fiancé returns, Lizzie realizes that perhaps Hal's the one man she can trust—with her heart and her son…
‘A penny for your thoughts?’
The deep male voice from behind startled her, yet Lizzie hid it instinctively. Sometimes, particularly arrogant young bucks still attempted to flirt with her for sport. Something which was always ruthlessly nipped in the bud. A slow, calculated glance to the side revealed Henry Stuart, the newly minted Earl of Redbridge. Handsome as sin and with a sinful reputation to match. She did not bother hiding her irritation at recognising him.
‘Do not trouble yourself, my lord. I can assure you that whatever misguided impulse sent you my way, it was most assuredly futile. I am in no mood to engage in polite conversation or anything else this evening.’ She flicked her eyes back towards the dance floor and turned her body away from his, allowing the uncomfortable seconds to tick by. Men were like wasps. If you ignored them, they eventually went away.
She heard the slight creaking protest of wood and realised he had eased his big body into the chair alongside. She gave him her best unwelcoming frown and curtest tone. ‘I do not recall inviting you to sit.’ This insect clearly needed swatting.
Looking decidedly bored, the Earl glanced at the rows of empty chairs around them and shrugged. ‘These seats have been expressly placed here by our hostess to rest upon. I do not recall being told I needed anyone’s permission to sit in them. Please ignore me, Lady Elizabeth and, in turn, I shall ignore you as you have made it quite plain you would prefer me to. Believe me, there are a million places I would rather be as well.’
As she could think of no immediate retort to such blatant indifference, Lizzie stared resolutely at the dance floor and her unwelcome companion did the same. Neither spoke. After a full five minutes, she actively considered standing and moving to the opposite side of the room. His continued presence rattled her, although she could not say why. Men did not linger when they had been rejected. As a rule. But moving would alert him to her discomfort and that would never do. ‘You can sit there all night. I still will not talk to you.’
‘Yet here you are, talking regardless.’ He stifled a yawn. ‘Fear not, fair maiden, like you, I am hiding. I find these events tiresome.’
‘There are many other places to hide, my lord, perhaps you should retire to one of those and leave me in peace. I was here first and, in case I have not made it obvious enough, I am not desirous of either your company or your attentions.’
Only his eyes turned to look at her and they were inscrutable. Very green. Very bored. ‘Clearly you have an inflated sense of your own appeal if you have construed my sitting as evidence of my interest in you.’ Lizzie instantly smarted at the insult, yet quashed the urge to show it. She could hardly go around dismissing men curtly from her presence, then become offended when one was blessedly uninterested.
‘I should still prefer you to sit elsewhere.’
‘Believe me, under normal circumstances I would be only too happy to comply with your request. However, drastic times call for drastic measures. I find myself in the unpleasant position of having to endure your company and, as I have specifically chosen to sit with you, you might try to be a little honoured by the accolade.’
‘Honoured?’ Despite the affront, he did, devil take him, have her intrigued. ‘And why, pray tell, do you have to endure me of all people, when there is a positive ocean of other, more agreeable people here to annoy?’
He gave the room a dismissive scan, then his sea-green eyes locked with hers far more impertinently than any eyes had in quite some time. ‘May I be brutally frank with you, Lady Elizabeth?’
He was still regarding her blandly and, much as it pained her, Lizzie nodded. ‘Honesty? From a renowned rake? This I have to hear.’
He heaved an irritated sigh, although clearly more at his own situation than at her rudeness, and stared at the dance floor with an expression of complete distaste. ‘Since I came into the earldom, I find myself in the hideous position of being eligible. Earls, apparently, need wives and there are a vast number of eager candidates for the position keen to push themselves forward—I confess, I am finding it all rather tiresome.’
‘From what I know of your reputation, sir, I would have thought you would relish so much opportunity.’
His dark brows drew together and his top lip wrinkled in disgust. ‘Opportunity? Are you quite mad, Lady Elizabeth? The only opportunity this whole sorry situation offers me is the opportunity to be caught soundly in the parson’s trap! A place, I can assure you, I have no desire to be. Any decent rake worth his salt does not dally with nice girls. Everybody knows that!’ He shuddered and Lizzie found herself smiling before she stopped herself. At least he was being honest.
‘All very tragic, yet I am still none the wiser as to why you have singled out this particular corner of the ballroom to hide in, or more specifically why you have to endure being here. With me. Or why I should feel honoured in the process.’
He lent sideways to whisper, as if he were imparting some great secret, and his warm breath tickled her ear. It was, surprisingly, a wholly pleasant sensation. ‘It is well known, my dear lady, that your charming disposition and sociable nature are not for the faint hearted. Especially during this joyous festive season.’ She watched the hint of a smile linger for a moment on his face, a hint of a smile which was every bit as roguish as he was, saw his broad chest rise, then fall slowly under his crossed, irritatingly muscled arms and felt her pulse flutter at the magnificent sight of him. Her bizarre reaction made her scowl at him in anger. Something which obviously amused him greatly, because the half-smile turned into a full rakish grin, and to her complete shame that grin did strange things to her insides.
‘You have quite the reputation, Lady Elizabeth, thank goodness, as I cannot tolerate people without a bad reputation. All that goodness makes me nervous. However, I digress, it is your reputation for ill-humoured and barely concealed dislike of polite society which I am in dire need of. A deterrent, as it were. You, madam, are the perfect foil for a man in my position. A sullen shield to defend me against my hordes of eager admirers. Nobody will dare to come and talk to me when I am sat here with you. I shall be spared every crushing bore, every ambitious mama and every nimble, nubile, pathetically eager yet dreadfully dull, potential bride.’
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“Both Hal and Lizzie, the hero and heroine of my story, are dreading the stress of Christmas socialising. What stresses you out the most during the holiday season?”