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Promise of Pleasure

Promise of Pleasure

“The Queen of Erotic Romance” is back with a tempting tale of secret desires and forbidden fruit — and what it takes to make dreams come true…

Mary Barnes has had it with her cruel stepmother who’s hoarded the family inheritance… with her two privileged stepsisters… and with feeling unloved and unappreciated. Her one desire is to flee her stifling world, but it doesn’t seem possible — until a mysterious peddler offers her an elixir and a promise: one drink of his tonic and the first man she sees will be hers. Though she is too much of realist to believe in potions, she accepts. As if by magic, a stranger crosses her path and steps into her life.

He’s Jordan Winthrop, scoundrel, viscount, and desperately bankrupt heir to the Earl of Sunderland. He’s also meant for Mary’s stepsister. Thrilled by his advances, and intoxicated by their secret affair, Mary finds herself falling for a man who’s already unmistakably engaged — to her sister’s fortune. As for Jordan, he can’t help but wonder if Mary is the woman to change his roguish ways — when he is spellbound in a sensual destiny spiraling beyond his control.

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New York Times Best-Seller
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER!!!

K.I.S.S. Award Winner, Romantic Times MagazineK.I.S.S. Award Winner, Romantic Times Magazine
Double K.I.S.S. award for double heroes!


Nominated Best Sensual Novel of 2008

4.5 stars

“HOT… FANTASTIC… A KEEPER… HOLT is a perfectionist at playing into reader fantasies. The Spinster’s Cure trilogy delivers that and more. Following a Cinderella theme, Holt heats up the tale with a naughty, sexy Prince Charming and just enough sizzle to fire readers’ imaginations and wishes for more.” — Kathe Robin, Romantic Times BOOK Reviews

“The Cinderella story in a Regency setting, that’s what PROMISE OF PLEASURE is. But it isn’t just a re-telling of the well know fairy tale. It’s so much fun to read the book. If you are looking for a fantastic Regency romance, don’t look any further and get your copy of PROMISE OF PLEASURE today!” — loveromancesandmore.blogspot.com

The first Spinster’s Cure novel is a fun adult version of Cinderella with a strong lead couple and a solid support cast who with several neat twists seem to have stepped out of the fairy tale into the Regency sub-genre… Fans will enjoy this fine Regency romance as Jordan must choose between love and money.” — Harriet Klausner, #1 Amazon Reviewer

Cheryl Holt’s PROMISE OF PLEASURE does much more than promise a pleasurable read — it delivers. I’d been looking for a historical romance to lose myself in and in PROMISE OF PLEASURE I found it. Sometimes you just need to leave the modern day cares and concerns and travel back to another time where things were just so, rules clearly defined and engaging heroes unravel them. Ms. Holt delivers that need to escape and entertains so well… The characters are well drawn and credible… If you are looking for a great springtime read, look no further than the PROMISE OF PLEASURE.” — Loves Romances

“The master is back with another great hit!” — FreshFiction.com

I finished your new book last night. AHHH!!! It was definitely worth the wait. Regency Cinderella!..only with your twist. I don’t usually like a secondary couple interrupting the storyline, but you are such a great writer it flowed with the story. Looking forward very, very much to the next one [TASTE OF TEMPTATION] in June.” — Margaret

Your book was worth waiting for. I couldn’t put it down! I had to keep reading until I finished it. It had everything in it that I like: the nasty mistress, the bad sisters. I am so glad you’re back. Now with the little preview [of TASTE OF TEMPTATION] I can hardly wait for June. I always loved to read your books and always will. I was glad when I had written and asked when you will be back and now your ARE. WONDERFUL. Until the next book.” — Mary

I read Promise of Pleasure and as usual I enjoyed it immensely. Keep up the good work. Can’t wait for [taste of temptation] in June.” — Tonya

You are such a great writer. I never cease to be amazed by the characters you create.” — Kate

You have always been and remain my favorite author. PROMISE OF PLEASURE is your best book so far.” — Meg

I just read your book, PROMISE OF PLEASURE. This is my first time reading one of your books, and I loved it. It is a book that you can’t put down, and I read until 1 a.m. The book was very hot! I will be buying more!! And my night time school work will just have to go on the back burner for awhile… It’s worth the grade drop! Keep writing more…” — Bonnie

About two years ago I started reading historical romance novels. Since then, I have probably bought well over a hundred books reading at least 2 a week. Therefore, I consider myself an expert in historical romance authors. You are at the very top of my list!! You are a hidden treasure with amazing talent and I look forward to every book!! Every chapter you write captures the reader’s attention. — Billie Jo

I have just finished PROMISE OF PLEASURE and (WELCOME BACK) it was one of my favorites. I cannot wait for TASTE OF TEMPTATION. Although you won’t need it, BEST OF LUCK on the next installment. — Melanie

… Barnes Manor, rural England, June, 1814

“Fetch my blue dress.”

Mary Barnes glared at her half-sister, Felicity, and asked, “Which one?”

“The blue one! The blue one!” Felicity snapped. “Which one do you suppose?”

“You have eight blue dresses,” Mary said. “Could you be a tad more specific?”

Felicity spun toward the mirror and primped her blond ringlets, dimples creasing her rosy cheeks.

“Bring me the one that sets off the color of my eyes.”

Felicity’s eyes were a lovely sapphire that any fabric would enhance, but no gown could disguise the fact that she was spoiled and horrid. Mary seemed to be the only person who had noted Felicity’s fickle temperament, but then, Felicity was very rich, so many sins could be overlooked.

With each passing month, as Felicity was courted by various gentlemen who hoped to marry her, she grew more vain and impossible. As a wealthy heiress, she had swains fawning over her, and she could be very choosey. So far, she’d found none of them to be acceptable.

Jordan Winthrop, Viscount Redvers, was the next candidate scheduled to visit, so the stakes were very high. Felicity would probably insult and snub him as she had the others. Mary yearned to inquire as to why Felicity bothered with any of them, but she wisely kept her mouth shut.

Early on, Mary had learned that it was useless to speak with Felicity about any topic of import. The eighteen-year-old girl was so conceited, her sense of entitlement so vast, that normal conversation was a waste of breath.

Mary went to Felicity’s dressing room and retrieved an enticing gown suitable for Felicity’s introduction to Lord Redvers. The material would hug Felicity’s plump figure, which was a shape men were said to enjoy. Not that Mary had had any experience in masculine preferences.

At age twenty-five, she’d had scant male attention. Her own figure was slender and willowy, the exact opposite of Felicity’s, but Mary was also poor and plain, so it was difficult to assess why men never noticed her.

As her stepmother, Victoria, constantly harangued, there were a myriad of reasons for Mary’s lack of suitors, but she valiantly strove to ignore them.

Why feel sorry for herself? With no dowry and no prospects, she couldn’t alter her fate.

She returned to Felicity’s boudoir and draped the gown across the bed. On seeing it, Felicity grumbled, “Oh, for pity’s sake, that’s not the one I wanted.”

“It’s fine, Felicity.”

“The shade is completely wrong for me. Can’t you do anything right?”

Several bitter replies coursed through Mary’s head.

Had any woman in all of history ever suffered so egregiously? Had any woman ever been so unappreciated? Surely even Cinderella’s lot hadn’t been as bad as Mary’s!

She whirled away, planning to stomp off in a huff, when Felicity complained, “Where are you going?”

“I have better things to do than stand here and let you scold me.”

“But what about Viscount Redvers? I’m not ready to greet him.”

“I don’t care. Call for your maid.”

Mary stormed out, so angry she felt as if she might explode. In the past, she had calmly tolerated Felicity’s vitriol and spite. But lately, Mary was changing.

She was questioning her plight, her lowly status.

Her father had been a prosperous merchant, her mother a gentleman’s daughter who’d died when Mary was born. Victoria was his second wife. She’d birthed him two more daughters — Felicity and her older sister, Cassandra — then he’d passed away, leaving Mary alone and unprotected.

Mary had endured unending torment at the hands of her malicious relatives, and she was beginning to rebel. Why had Felicity and Cassandra been given so much? Why had Mary been given nothing at all?

Mary longed to marry, to have a home and family of her own, but their neighbor, Harold Talbot, was the only suitor who’d evinced any interest in her.

He was forty and still lived with his widowed mother. Supposedly, she’d refused his request to wed Mary, and he kept dangling the idea of a betrothal someday soon, after his mother was deceased, but that day never seemed to arrive.

Mary had waited through a decade of his broken promises, and her patience was exhausted. She was anxious for something — anything! — to happen that would improve her condition.

She slowed her pace and continued to the other wing of the house, to the grand suite where Viscount Redvers would reside for the next month.

She’d supervised the servants who’d prepared his rooms, and while she didn’t give two figs about Felicity or her marital schemes, Mary hoped he’d be impressed.

The space was magnificently appointed, fit for a king, and she tiptoed about, smoothing a quilt, rearranging the flowers in a vase, then she entered his dressing room.

It contained an ornate mirror, and she studied her reflection, critically evaluating herself. She hated her looks. As Victoria bluntly reminded her, she was too short, too thin, too dark, too ordinary.

In a world where nearly everyone was blond and blue-eyed, her hair and eyes were brown. Her skin was unblemished, her teeth straight, her cheekbones high, but with her hair pulled back in a tight chignon, and swathed from chin to toe in an unflattering gray dress, she might have been a dowdy nanny or an irritable governess.

For a brief instant, she wished she was pretty and rich like Felicity and Cassandra, but she tamped down the notion. She’d never wanted to be like them.

“What would I do with a fortune anyway?” She sighed.

“Why would you consider wealth to be cumbersome?” a male mused from behind her. “I’ve always been able to devise numerous uses for large amounts of money. It’s really not that difficult. You’d be surprised at how quickly you adapt.”

Mary whipped around, coming face to face with a man who had to be thirty-year-old Jordan Winthrop, Viscount Redvers, the only son and heir of the Earl of Sunderland.

He was very tall — six foot at least — and very handsome, his features masculine and perfect: high forehead, strong nose, generous mouth. His hair was black as night, his eyes a deep indigo, like the sky at sunset. His legs were impossibly long, his waist narrow, his chest and shoulders broad and muscled — which she could clearly see because he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

She didn’t think she’d ever viewed a man’s naked chest before, so she hadn’t understood that it would be covered with hair. It was dark as the hair on his head, thick across the top, then tapering down his stomach to disappear inside his trousers.

Though she couldn’t fathom why, the sight was exciting and disturbing.

Why hadn’t she been notified that he was on the premises? How would she explain her lurking in his private quarters?

Gulping with dismay, she made an awkward curtsy. “I apologize, milord. I wasn’t told that you’d arrived.”

“I was just about to wash. I asked the footman to send someone to assist me, but I didn’t realize he’d be so accommodating. I’ll have to convey my gratitude.”

She blanched, eager to rush out, but he was blocking the door, her sole route of escape.

They were in an isolated part of the mansion, and he was renowned as the most infamous rake in the kingdom. His dastardly repute was built on amorous peccadilloes, duels, debts, and deceits.

He might do anything to her.

He took a step forward, and she took one back, until she was at the wall and could go no farther.

Evidently, he presumed that she would bathe him. Did the housemaids attend guests in such an outrageous fashion? Was it common?

How could Mary not be aware of such illicit behavior? She spent enough time with the servants; she should have had an inkling of what went on behind closed doors.

What might a woman do for a man like Redvers? She wished she knew. A more brazen female would probably have poured water in a bowl, dipped a cloth, and swabbed it all over him, but she never would.

In her entire life, she’d never committed a single daring act, and she wasn’t about to start now.

“Would you… you… excuse me?” The quaver in her voice apprised him of how he’d unnerved her.

“No.”

“I’m not about to help you wash.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

He chuckled, a low, seductive baritone that tickled her innards and made her knees weak.

“You don’t have to pretend,” he said.

“Pretend what?”

“You don’t have to play the shy maiden with me — unless you enjoy a good fantasy? I don’t usually care for games, but I’m happy to oblige you.”

He took her hand and placed it on his trousers, as if he expected her to unbutton them. Her knuckles brushed his flat belly, and she yanked away and huddled against the plaster, feeling like a canary that had been cornered by a very large, very hungry cat.

He drew her to him until her torso was crushed to his, and the intimate positioning had a peculiar effect on her anatomy. Her skin prickled, her breasts ached, and the mysterious woman’s spot between her legs grew relaxed and wet.

“I demand that you let me leave,” she said.

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“You’ve made a mistake.”

“Have I?”

“Yes. I’m not here to… to… ”

“To what? To fornicate?”

“That word… ” — she scowled — “what does it mean?”

“What do you suppose? It means every wicked deed you can imagine — and even some you can’t.”

She had no idea what he was describing, and she wasn’t in any mood to find out. Especially from a notorious libertine who had come to Barnes Manor to discuss marriage with Felicity.

“If you continue,” she threatened, “you’ll be sorry.”

“I doubt it. I’ve never been sorry about anything. Ever.”

“But you don’t know who I am.”

“I don’t care who you are. You’re very pretty, which is all that matters to me.”

At his remark, she was frozen with surprise. No one had ever told her she was pretty. In fact, her stepmother insisted she wasn’t, as did her tepid beau, Harold.

The odd compliment distracted her, so she was unprepared for him to bend down and nuzzle at her nape. His bold advance was so shocking — and so delightful — that she was paralyzed, unable to fight or flee as she ought.

He nibbled away, his crafty fingers sneaking up, caressing her thigh, her hip, rising till he audaciously stroked her breast.

She hadn’t realized the mound was so sensitive, and she became so agitated that she might have swooned, but his strong arm kept her from falling to the floor in a stunned heap.

“Please… stop,” she breathlessly murmured.

Her plaintive supplication registered, and he pulled away and frowned.

“Aren’t you carrying your maidenly protests a tad too far?” he asked. “You’re too old for all this virginal umbrage.”

“Old! I’m only twenty-five.”

“Then quit acting like a debutante. I don’t like it.”

Just then, the door to the outer chamber opened, and a female called, “Redvers, are you in here?”

Mary didn’t know who had arrived, but if she was caught with the viscount, there’d be hell to pay. She squealed with alarm and tried to draw away, but he wouldn’t release her.

“Who’s out there?” she whispered.

“It’s my special friend, Mrs. Bainbridge.” He appeared humored by Mary’s panic. “She won’t like finding you with me.”

“Let me go!” she begged.

“No.”

“Redvers,” Mrs. Bainbridge called again, as she marched toward the dressing room.

Mary pushed at him with all her might, but Redvers merely laughed and turned them so that he was leaned against the wall, with Mary snuggled to him, her back to his front. His arm was draped across her abdomen, holding her in place.

A voluptuous beauty entered. She had auburn hair and big green eyes, and she was attired in a stylish maroon gown that accented her striking features. She oozed a sophistication and polish that Mary couldn’t have managed in a thousand years.

“Who is that?” Mrs. Bainbridge inquired, nodding at Mary, her displeasure clear.

“The footman sent me a valet,” Redvers explained, “but she’s the wrong sex and she’s terribly prim and boring. May I keep her anyway?”

Mrs. Bainbridge’s gaze was lethal, and she assessed Mary as if Mary were a pet dog. “No, you can’t keep her, darling. I won’t have you trifling with the servants.”

“She was about to wash me,” he claimed.

“I was not!” Mary seethed, but they ignored her.

“If you need washing,” Mrs. Bainbridge declared, “I shall tend you. Don’t pester the hired help.” She glared at Mary. “Be gone, you filthy harlot, and if I catch you sniffing around the viscount again, I’ll have you whipped.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Mary muttered, stumbling away from Redvers.

She skirted Bainbridge and hurried into the adjoining bedchamber.

Cheeks burning with mortification, she slowed, trying to regroup and ease the rapid pounding of her heart. What had just happened? And what should she do about it?

Would Redvers tattle to Victoria? Should Mary, herself, confess what had transpired? What would she say? That she’d been groped and maligned by a reprobate?

Gad! Mrs. Bainbridge had to be Redvers’s mistress, yet he’d brought her to Barnes Manor with no thought to Felicity.

How could Felicity marry him? He was depraved in a manner beyond their comprehension.

While Victoria had first crowed over Redvers’s visit, she’d been brutally frank about his scandalous character. But had she been informed as to the extent of his corruption?

Victoria was a baronet’s daughter, who’d married down by accepting Mary’s father. She’d never forgiven him for her plunge in status, and she was determined to rectify her mistake by arranging a lofty union for Felicity. Victoria was set on the match with Redvers — as was Felicity herself.

Dare Mary enlighten them as to the true state of his degeneracy? Would they be concerned about it?

As Victoria often counseled, a woman could overlook many faults in order to become a countess.

Feeling conflicted but more calm, Mary was about to tiptoe away, when she noticed that the door to the dressing chamber hadn’t shut all the way; she could peek through the crack and spy on Redvers. And though she was positive she’d be damned for all eternity, she did exactly that.

Mrs. Bainbridge was standing very close to him, stroking a wet cloth across his chest and stomach.

“Better?” she asked as she tossed the cloth on the floor.

“Much.”

“I can’t believe you let that drab little maid assist you.”

“She was convenient.”

“If I hadn’t walked in, I suppose you’d have had her skirt up over her head.”

“Most likely.”

Mrs. Bainbridge leveled a glance that was meant to both chastise and seduce.

“You know I detest it when you dabble with slatterns.”

“And you know that it’s none of your business. Don’t presume to scold me.”

She scowled as if she might quarrel, but on seeing his stony expression, her pout changed to a smile.

“You are the worst libertine in the world,” she charged.

“I’ve never denied it.”

“Let me remind you of why you don’t need anyone but me.”

“Yes, why don’t you? My encounter with that little drab — as you call her — has left me out of sorts. Why don’t you do something interesting to earn your keep?”

“You don’t pay me any longer, remember? Not since your father snipped the financial cord.”

“Then do it for free — and get on with it.”

“Ooh, you are such a wretch! Why do I put up with you?”

“Because you’re mad about me, and you know it.”

“I know nothing of the kind.”

“Give over, Lauretta,” he chided, using her Christian name. “You’re a mercenary, and you’ve cast your lot with me. Your claws will be dug in till I’ve inherited and spent my old man’s last farthing.”

“Yes, they will, and Felicity be damned.”

“Yes,” he concurred. “Felicity be damned.”

Their cold words cut Mary to the quick. She wanted to sneak out, to escape the evil pair, but despicable as it sounded, she remained rooted to her spot.

Mrs. Bainbridge grabbed the waistband of his trousers and pulled him to her, and she initiated a passionate kiss. Their lips were melded, their arms entwined, their hands everywhere, and Mary watched, agog, as they writhed and touched.

Other than a hasty, furtive embrace she’d once witnessed at the harvest fair, she couldn’t recollect ever having seen two people kissing. She hadn’t understood that it would be so physical, and the spectacle rattled her.

She felt tingly all over. Her nipples hardened and throbbed; her heart started pounding again.

Mrs. Bainbridge pushed him out of sight, which irritated Mary enormously. She couldn’t see them, but she could hear their groans and sighs, the rustling of fabric. A few minutes later, Mrs. Bainbridge moved back into view. There was scant evidence to clarify what had occurred, but the woman’s dress was askew and her hair had fallen from its combs.

She flashed a confident grin at Redvers. “Next time you consider embarrassing yourself with a housemaid, please recall that I’m your mistress. No one can satisfy you as I can, and don’t you forget it.”

“I’ll try not to,” he tepidly replied, yawning.

“You are such a rude beast!”

In a snit, her hips swaying to and fro, she sashayed from the room. Mary couldn’t make it to the door without Mrs. Bainbridge observing her, so she dashed over and hid behind the drapes until Mrs. Bainbridge exited into the hallway.

As her footsteps receded, Mary was anxious to creep away undetected. She peeked out, but Redvers was over by the dressing room, leaned against the doorjam, waiting for her to emerge.

She gasped with dismay.

“She’s gone, my sly voyeur,” he said. “Would you like to continue where we left off?”

He’d seen her? He was aware that she’d been spying?

“Aah!” she shrieked.

“Did you enjoy the show?” he asked, smirking.

She blushed a dozen shades of red. “You are the most disgraceful, disreputable person I’ve ever met.”

“I’m sure that’s true.”

“I have to tell Victoria what you’re really like,” she absurdly threatened.

“She already knows.”

Mary spun and fled, his contemptuous laughter ringing in her ears.

Awards

New York Times Best-Seller
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER!!!

K.I.S.S. Award Winner, Romantic Times MagazineK.I.S.S. Award Winner, Romantic Times Magazine
Double K.I.S.S. award for double heroes!


Nominated Best Sensual Novel of 2008

Reviews

4.5 stars

“HOT… FANTASTIC… A KEEPER… HOLT is a perfectionist at playing into reader fantasies. The Spinster’s Cure trilogy delivers that and more. Following a Cinderella theme, Holt heats up the tale with a naughty, sexy Prince Charming and just enough sizzle to fire readers’ imaginations and wishes for more.” — Kathe Robin, Romantic Times BOOK Reviews

“The Cinderella story in a Regency setting, that’s what PROMISE OF PLEASURE is. But it isn’t just a re-telling of the well know fairy tale. It’s so much fun to read the book. If you are looking for a fantastic Regency romance, don’t look any further and get your copy of PROMISE OF PLEASURE today!” — loveromancesandmore.blogspot.com

The first Spinster’s Cure novel is a fun adult version of Cinderella with a strong lead couple and a solid support cast who with several neat twists seem to have stepped out of the fairy tale into the Regency sub-genre… Fans will enjoy this fine Regency romance as Jordan must choose between love and money.” — Harriet Klausner, #1 Amazon Reviewer

Cheryl Holt’s PROMISE OF PLEASURE does much more than promise a pleasurable read — it delivers. I’d been looking for a historical romance to lose myself in and in PROMISE OF PLEASURE I found it. Sometimes you just need to leave the modern day cares and concerns and travel back to another time where things were just so, rules clearly defined and engaging heroes unravel them. Ms. Holt delivers that need to escape and entertains so well… The characters are well drawn and credible… If you are looking for a great springtime read, look no further than the PROMISE OF PLEASURE.” — Loves Romances

“The master is back with another great hit!” — FreshFiction.com

Fan Reviews

I finished your new book last night. AHHH!!! It was definitely worth the wait. Regency Cinderella!..only with your twist. I don’t usually like a secondary couple interrupting the storyline, but you are such a great writer it flowed with the story. Looking forward very, very much to the next one [TASTE OF TEMPTATION] in June.” — Margaret

Your book was worth waiting for. I couldn’t put it down! I had to keep reading until I finished it. It had everything in it that I like: the nasty mistress, the bad sisters. I am so glad you’re back. Now with the little preview [of TASTE OF TEMPTATION] I can hardly wait for June. I always loved to read your books and always will. I was glad when I had written and asked when you will be back and now your ARE. WONDERFUL. Until the next book.” — Mary

I read Promise of Pleasure and as usual I enjoyed it immensely. Keep up the good work. Can’t wait for [taste of temptation] in June.” — Tonya

You are such a great writer. I never cease to be amazed by the characters you create.” — Kate

You have always been and remain my favorite author. PROMISE OF PLEASURE is your best book so far.” — Meg

I just read your book, PROMISE OF PLEASURE. This is my first time reading one of your books, and I loved it. It is a book that you can’t put down, and I read until 1 a.m. The book was very hot! I will be buying more!! And my night time school work will just have to go on the back burner for awhile… It’s worth the grade drop! Keep writing more…” — Bonnie

About two years ago I started reading historical romance novels. Since then, I have probably bought well over a hundred books reading at least 2 a week. Therefore, I consider myself an expert in historical romance authors. You are at the very top of my list!! You are a hidden treasure with amazing talent and I look forward to every book!! Every chapter you write captures the reader’s attention. — Billie Jo

I have just finished PROMISE OF PLEASURE and (WELCOME BACK) it was one of my favorites. I cannot wait for TASTE OF TEMPTATION. Although you won’t need it, BEST OF LUCK on the next installment. — Melanie

Sneak Preview

… Barnes Manor, rural England, June, 1814

“Fetch my blue dress.”

Mary Barnes glared at her half-sister, Felicity, and asked, “Which one?”

“The blue one! The blue one!” Felicity snapped. “Which one do you suppose?”

“You have eight blue dresses,” Mary said. “Could you be a tad more specific?”

Felicity spun toward the mirror and primped her blond ringlets, dimples creasing her rosy cheeks.

“Bring me the one that sets off the color of my eyes.”

Felicity’s eyes were a lovely sapphire that any fabric would enhance, but no gown could disguise the fact that she was spoiled and horrid. Mary seemed to be the only person who had noted Felicity’s fickle temperament, but then, Felicity was very rich, so many sins could be overlooked.

With each passing month, as Felicity was courted by various gentlemen who hoped to marry her, she grew more vain and impossible. As a wealthy heiress, she had swains fawning over her, and she could be very choosey. So far, she’d found none of them to be acceptable.

Jordan Winthrop, Viscount Redvers, was the next candidate scheduled to visit, so the stakes were very high. Felicity would probably insult and snub him as she had the others. Mary yearned to inquire as to why Felicity bothered with any of them, but she wisely kept her mouth shut.

Early on, Mary had learned that it was useless to speak with Felicity about any topic of import. The eighteen-year-old girl was so conceited, her sense of entitlement so vast, that normal conversation was a waste of breath.

Mary went to Felicity’s dressing room and retrieved an enticing gown suitable for Felicity’s introduction to Lord Redvers. The material would hug Felicity’s plump figure, which was a shape men were said to enjoy. Not that Mary had had any experience in masculine preferences.

At age twenty-five, she’d had scant male attention. Her own figure was slender and willowy, the exact opposite of Felicity’s, but Mary was also poor and plain, so it was difficult to assess why men never noticed her.

As her stepmother, Victoria, constantly harangued, there were a myriad of reasons for Mary’s lack of suitors, but she valiantly strove to ignore them.

Why feel sorry for herself? With no dowry and no prospects, she couldn’t alter her fate.

She returned to Felicity’s boudoir and draped the gown across the bed. On seeing it, Felicity grumbled, “Oh, for pity’s sake, that’s not the one I wanted.”

“It’s fine, Felicity.”

“The shade is completely wrong for me. Can’t you do anything right?”

Several bitter replies coursed through Mary’s head.

Had any woman in all of history ever suffered so egregiously? Had any woman ever been so unappreciated? Surely even Cinderella’s lot hadn’t been as bad as Mary’s!

She whirled away, planning to stomp off in a huff, when Felicity complained, “Where are you going?”

“I have better things to do than stand here and let you scold me.”

“But what about Viscount Redvers? I’m not ready to greet him.”

“I don’t care. Call for your maid.”

Mary stormed out, so angry she felt as if she might explode. In the past, she had calmly tolerated Felicity’s vitriol and spite. But lately, Mary was changing.

She was questioning her plight, her lowly status.

Her father had been a prosperous merchant, her mother a gentleman’s daughter who’d died when Mary was born. Victoria was his second wife. She’d birthed him two more daughters — Felicity and her older sister, Cassandra — then he’d passed away, leaving Mary alone and unprotected.

Mary had endured unending torment at the hands of her malicious relatives, and she was beginning to rebel. Why had Felicity and Cassandra been given so much? Why had Mary been given nothing at all?

Mary longed to marry, to have a home and family of her own, but their neighbor, Harold Talbot, was the only suitor who’d evinced any interest in her.

He was forty and still lived with his widowed mother. Supposedly, she’d refused his request to wed Mary, and he kept dangling the idea of a betrothal someday soon, after his mother was deceased, but that day never seemed to arrive.

Mary had waited through a decade of his broken promises, and her patience was exhausted. She was anxious for something — anything! — to happen that would improve her condition.

She slowed her pace and continued to the other wing of the house, to the grand suite where Viscount Redvers would reside for the next month.

She’d supervised the servants who’d prepared his rooms, and while she didn’t give two figs about Felicity or her marital schemes, Mary hoped he’d be impressed.

The space was magnificently appointed, fit for a king, and she tiptoed about, smoothing a quilt, rearranging the flowers in a vase, then she entered his dressing room.

It contained an ornate mirror, and she studied her reflection, critically evaluating herself. She hated her looks. As Victoria bluntly reminded her, she was too short, too thin, too dark, too ordinary.

In a world where nearly everyone was blond and blue-eyed, her hair and eyes were brown. Her skin was unblemished, her teeth straight, her cheekbones high, but with her hair pulled back in a tight chignon, and swathed from chin to toe in an unflattering gray dress, she might have been a dowdy nanny or an irritable governess.

For a brief instant, she wished she was pretty and rich like Felicity and Cassandra, but she tamped down the notion. She’d never wanted to be like them.

“What would I do with a fortune anyway?” She sighed.

“Why would you consider wealth to be cumbersome?” a male mused from behind her. “I’ve always been able to devise numerous uses for large amounts of money. It’s really not that difficult. You’d be surprised at how quickly you adapt.”

Mary whipped around, coming face to face with a man who had to be thirty-year-old Jordan Winthrop, Viscount Redvers, the only son and heir of the Earl of Sunderland.

He was very tall — six foot at least — and very handsome, his features masculine and perfect: high forehead, strong nose, generous mouth. His hair was black as night, his eyes a deep indigo, like the sky at sunset. His legs were impossibly long, his waist narrow, his chest and shoulders broad and muscled — which she could clearly see because he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

She didn’t think she’d ever viewed a man’s naked chest before, so she hadn’t understood that it would be covered with hair. It was dark as the hair on his head, thick across the top, then tapering down his stomach to disappear inside his trousers.

Though she couldn’t fathom why, the sight was exciting and disturbing.

Why hadn’t she been notified that he was on the premises? How would she explain her lurking in his private quarters?

Gulping with dismay, she made an awkward curtsy. “I apologize, milord. I wasn’t told that you’d arrived.”

“I was just about to wash. I asked the footman to send someone to assist me, but I didn’t realize he’d be so accommodating. I’ll have to convey my gratitude.”

She blanched, eager to rush out, but he was blocking the door, her sole route of escape.

They were in an isolated part of the mansion, and he was renowned as the most infamous rake in the kingdom. His dastardly repute was built on amorous peccadilloes, duels, debts, and deceits.

He might do anything to her.

He took a step forward, and she took one back, until she was at the wall and could go no farther.

Evidently, he presumed that she would bathe him. Did the housemaids attend guests in such an outrageous fashion? Was it common?

How could Mary not be aware of such illicit behavior? She spent enough time with the servants; she should have had an inkling of what went on behind closed doors.

What might a woman do for a man like Redvers? She wished she knew. A more brazen female would probably have poured water in a bowl, dipped a cloth, and swabbed it all over him, but she never would.

In her entire life, she’d never committed a single daring act, and she wasn’t about to start now.

“Would you… you… excuse me?” The quaver in her voice apprised him of how he’d unnerved her.

“No.”

“I’m not about to help you wash.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

He chuckled, a low, seductive baritone that tickled her innards and made her knees weak.

“You don’t have to pretend,” he said.

“Pretend what?”

“You don’t have to play the shy maiden with me — unless you enjoy a good fantasy? I don’t usually care for games, but I’m happy to oblige you.”

He took her hand and placed it on his trousers, as if he expected her to unbutton them. Her knuckles brushed his flat belly, and she yanked away and huddled against the plaster, feeling like a canary that had been cornered by a very large, very hungry cat.

He drew her to him until her torso was crushed to his, and the intimate positioning had a peculiar effect on her anatomy. Her skin prickled, her breasts ached, and the mysterious woman’s spot between her legs grew relaxed and wet.

“I demand that you let me leave,” she said.

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“You’ve made a mistake.”

“Have I?”

“Yes. I’m not here to… to… ”

“To what? To fornicate?”

“That word… ” — she scowled — “what does it mean?”

“What do you suppose? It means every wicked deed you can imagine — and even some you can’t.”

She had no idea what he was describing, and she wasn’t in any mood to find out. Especially from a notorious libertine who had come to Barnes Manor to discuss marriage with Felicity.

“If you continue,” she threatened, “you’ll be sorry.”

“I doubt it. I’ve never been sorry about anything. Ever.”

“But you don’t know who I am.”

“I don’t care who you are. You’re very pretty, which is all that matters to me.”

At his remark, she was frozen with surprise. No one had ever told her she was pretty. In fact, her stepmother insisted she wasn’t, as did her tepid beau, Harold.

The odd compliment distracted her, so she was unprepared for him to bend down and nuzzle at her nape. His bold advance was so shocking — and so delightful — that she was paralyzed, unable to fight or flee as she ought.

He nibbled away, his crafty fingers sneaking up, caressing her thigh, her hip, rising till he audaciously stroked her breast.

She hadn’t realized the mound was so sensitive, and she became so agitated that she might have swooned, but his strong arm kept her from falling to the floor in a stunned heap.

“Please… stop,” she breathlessly murmured.

Her plaintive supplication registered, and he pulled away and frowned.

“Aren’t you carrying your maidenly protests a tad too far?” he asked. “You’re too old for all this virginal umbrage.”

“Old! I’m only twenty-five.”

“Then quit acting like a debutante. I don’t like it.”

Just then, the door to the outer chamber opened, and a female called, “Redvers, are you in here?”

Mary didn’t know who had arrived, but if she was caught with the viscount, there’d be hell to pay. She squealed with alarm and tried to draw away, but he wouldn’t release her.

“Who’s out there?” she whispered.

“It’s my special friend, Mrs. Bainbridge.” He appeared humored by Mary’s panic. “She won’t like finding you with me.”

“Let me go!” she begged.

“No.”

“Redvers,” Mrs. Bainbridge called again, as she marched toward the dressing room.

Mary pushed at him with all her might, but Redvers merely laughed and turned them so that he was leaned against the wall, with Mary snuggled to him, her back to his front. His arm was draped across her abdomen, holding her in place.

A voluptuous beauty entered. She had auburn hair and big green eyes, and she was attired in a stylish maroon gown that accented her striking features. She oozed a sophistication and polish that Mary couldn’t have managed in a thousand years.

“Who is that?” Mrs. Bainbridge inquired, nodding at Mary, her displeasure clear.

“The footman sent me a valet,” Redvers explained, “but she’s the wrong sex and she’s terribly prim and boring. May I keep her anyway?”

Mrs. Bainbridge’s gaze was lethal, and she assessed Mary as if Mary were a pet dog. “No, you can’t keep her, darling. I won’t have you trifling with the servants.”

“She was about to wash me,” he claimed.

“I was not!” Mary seethed, but they ignored her.

“If you need washing,” Mrs. Bainbridge declared, “I shall tend you. Don’t pester the hired help.” She glared at Mary. “Be gone, you filthy harlot, and if I catch you sniffing around the viscount again, I’ll have you whipped.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Mary muttered, stumbling away from Redvers.

She skirted Bainbridge and hurried into the adjoining bedchamber.

Cheeks burning with mortification, she slowed, trying to regroup and ease the rapid pounding of her heart. What had just happened? And what should she do about it?

Would Redvers tattle to Victoria? Should Mary, herself, confess what had transpired? What would she say? That she’d been groped and maligned by a reprobate?

Gad! Mrs. Bainbridge had to be Redvers’s mistress, yet he’d brought her to Barnes Manor with no thought to Felicity.

How could Felicity marry him? He was depraved in a manner beyond their comprehension.

While Victoria had first crowed over Redvers’s visit, she’d been brutally frank about his scandalous character. But had she been informed as to the extent of his corruption?

Victoria was a baronet’s daughter, who’d married down by accepting Mary’s father. She’d never forgiven him for her plunge in status, and she was determined to rectify her mistake by arranging a lofty union for Felicity. Victoria was set on the match with Redvers — as was Felicity herself.

Dare Mary enlighten them as to the true state of his degeneracy? Would they be concerned about it?

As Victoria often counseled, a woman could overlook many faults in order to become a countess.

Feeling conflicted but more calm, Mary was about to tiptoe away, when she noticed that the door to the dressing chamber hadn’t shut all the way; she could peek through the crack and spy on Redvers. And though she was positive she’d be damned for all eternity, she did exactly that.

Mrs. Bainbridge was standing very close to him, stroking a wet cloth across his chest and stomach.

“Better?” she asked as she tossed the cloth on the floor.

“Much.”

“I can’t believe you let that drab little maid assist you.”

“She was convenient.”

“If I hadn’t walked in, I suppose you’d have had her skirt up over her head.”

“Most likely.”

Mrs. Bainbridge leveled a glance that was meant to both chastise and seduce.

“You know I detest it when you dabble with slatterns.”

“And you know that it’s none of your business. Don’t presume to scold me.”

She scowled as if she might quarrel, but on seeing his stony expression, her pout changed to a smile.

“You are the worst libertine in the world,” she charged.

“I’ve never denied it.”

“Let me remind you of why you don’t need anyone but me.”

“Yes, why don’t you? My encounter with that little drab — as you call her — has left me out of sorts. Why don’t you do something interesting to earn your keep?”

“You don’t pay me any longer, remember? Not since your father snipped the financial cord.”

“Then do it for free — and get on with it.”

“Ooh, you are such a wretch! Why do I put up with you?”

“Because you’re mad about me, and you know it.”

“I know nothing of the kind.”

“Give over, Lauretta,” he chided, using her Christian name. “You’re a mercenary, and you’ve cast your lot with me. Your claws will be dug in till I’ve inherited and spent my old man’s last farthing.”

“Yes, they will, and Felicity be damned.”

“Yes,” he concurred. “Felicity be damned.”

Their cold words cut Mary to the quick. She wanted to sneak out, to escape the evil pair, but despicable as it sounded, she remained rooted to her spot.

Mrs. Bainbridge grabbed the waistband of his trousers and pulled him to her, and she initiated a passionate kiss. Their lips were melded, their arms entwined, their hands everywhere, and Mary watched, agog, as they writhed and touched.

Other than a hasty, furtive embrace she’d once witnessed at the harvest fair, she couldn’t recollect ever having seen two people kissing. She hadn’t understood that it would be so physical, and the spectacle rattled her.

She felt tingly all over. Her nipples hardened and throbbed; her heart started pounding again.

Mrs. Bainbridge pushed him out of sight, which irritated Mary enormously. She couldn’t see them, but she could hear their groans and sighs, the rustling of fabric. A few minutes later, Mrs. Bainbridge moved back into view. There was scant evidence to clarify what had occurred, but the woman’s dress was askew and her hair had fallen from its combs.

She flashed a confident grin at Redvers. “Next time you consider embarrassing yourself with a housemaid, please recall that I’m your mistress. No one can satisfy you as I can, and don’t you forget it.”

“I’ll try not to,” he tepidly replied, yawning.

“You are such a rude beast!”

In a snit, her hips swaying to and fro, she sashayed from the room. Mary couldn’t make it to the door without Mrs. Bainbridge observing her, so she dashed over and hid behind the drapes until Mrs. Bainbridge exited into the hallway.

As her footsteps receded, Mary was anxious to creep away undetected. She peeked out, but Redvers was over by the dressing room, leaned against the doorjam, waiting for her to emerge.

She gasped with dismay.

“She’s gone, my sly voyeur,” he said. “Would you like to continue where we left off?”

He’d seen her? He was aware that she’d been spying?

“Aah!” she shrieked.

“Did you enjoy the show?” he asked, smirking.

She blushed a dozen shades of red. “You are the most disgraceful, disreputable person I’ve ever met.”

“I’m sure that’s true.”

“I have to tell Victoria what you’re really like,” she absurdly threatened.

“She already knows.”

Mary spun and fled, his contemptuous laughter ringing in her ears.

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