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Wanton

Wanton

New York Times bestselling author, CHERYL HOLT delivers another sassy, sexy romp in the second book of her “Reluctant Brides” trilogy…

Amelia Hubbard has always lived at Miss Peabody’s School for Girls, first as a student, then as a teacher. She enjoyed her position and the independence it brought. But Miss Peabody has died, the school is closing, and Amelia has no money and nowhere to go. When Fate intervenes and hands her a dowry and a handsome husband already purchased with the money, Amelia is nervous but resigned. She reluctantly agrees to wed a man she’s never met.

Lucas Drake has never been anything but a wastrel and scapegrace. As the second son of an earl, and with an older brother who’s perfect in every way, stellar behavior seems impossible. He’s always been happy to live down to his stern father’s low expectations. But when Amelia arrives and Lucas discovers that his father has engaged him to her, his bachelor tendencies surge to the fore. He’s vehemently certain that no wedding will ever occur.

When Amelia agreed to the match, she never imagined that Lucas might not want to get married. Her prior situation has ended, and without marriage, the future is bleak. What’s a spinster to do?

Wanton seduction seems the only path, but first, she’ll need a few lessons in how to use her feminine wiles. Once she figures out what Lucas really needs, the poor man doesn’t stand a chance.

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Reluctant Brides

Read the letter from Miss Peabody to Amelia (click to enlarge)

Wanton Letter

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CHAPTER ONE

“I’m here.  I’ve arrived.”

Feeling overwhelmed and a tad lost, Amelia Hubbard called out her announcement to the empty bedchamber.  But she was alone, so there was no one to hear or reply.

She’d been given a grand, ostentatious suite—a sitting room, bedroom, and dressing room—located in a drafty, isolated wing of Sidwell Manor.  A rented carriage had brought her to the estate, and after being deposited in the front drive, a maid had led her in and wound them through the quiet halls.

Her battered portmanteau was on the bed.  It contained all of Amelia’s worldly possessions, and it looked terribly shabby and much too threadbare to have been carried inside.  The maid had offered to unpack it, but Amelia had declined any assistance.

She hadn’t wanted the girl to see the pitiful condition of Amelia’s clothes.  Then again, with the plain gray dress she was currently wearing, her penury was obvious.  The posh décor only highlighted the odd contradiction created by her presence.

At age twenty-five, she’d spent the prior two decades at Miss Peabody’s School for Girls, first as a student, then as a teacher.  She’d never precisely thought of herself as poor.  She’d always had a roof over her head and food to eat.  Once she’d become a teacher, she’d earned an income, too.  It hadn’t been much, but it had furnished a sense of independence and security.

Yet with her surroundings revealed, she couldn’t help but be perturbed by her overt poverty.  The stark disparity between her circumstances and that of her host unnerved her as nothing else had so far.

Hadn’t she been anxious from the start?  Hadn’t she been disconcerted by the swiftness of events?

After a long and painful decline, Miss Peabody had died.  Out of the blue, her attorney had visited to declare that the school would be shut down and sold, the students sent away.  Amelia’s teaching position had ended as abruptly as a snap of the fingers.

During Miss Peabody’s last days, she’d told Amelia and the other two teachers—Rose Ralston and Evangeline Etherton—that she’d provided for them in her will.  They’d naively and foolishly assumed they’d receive a monetary bequest, that they could pool their funds and buy the school themselves.

So it had come as a huge shock to learn that their inheritances weren’t pecuniary at all.  Miss Peabody had dowered them and arranged marriages to men they’d never met.  She’d never wed or had children herself, and apparently, she’d regretted that fact and had wanted Amelia, Rose, and Evangeline to have a different option.

Amelia was an orphan with no prospects and no family except for her wayward brother, Chase.  She’d never expected to wed, so it had never occurred to her that she’d have the option, but she’d reluctantly agreed to Miss Peabody’s scheme.

With the school being closed, if Amelia hadn’t accepted the fiancé Miss Peabody had selected, she’d have had no money and nowhere to go.  Matrimony had suddenly been a very good choice, and she’d grudgingly journeyed off to her husband’s home.

But now that she’d arrived…well…

Every part of the situation seemed wrong—as if there were factors in play of which she hadn’t been apprised.

Her betrothed was Lucas Drake, of the Sidwell Drakes.  The name hadn’t meant anything to her and hadn’t concerned her much until the carriage had passed through the gates and rumbled down the orchard-lined lane to the manor.

It was a three-story mansion, perfectly placed on a sloping hill so the occupants could gaze out at the thousands and thousands of acres of their land holdings.

Her prospective father-in-law, George Drake, was Lord Sidwell, an earl and peer of the realm.  Why would such a lofty person pick lowly, ordinary, and very common Amelia Hubbard to marry one of his sons?  How could Miss Peabody have crossed paths with such an eminent individual?  How was she able to persuade him that Amelia was a suitable candidate to join the Drake family?

Amelia’s mother had been a British actress, her father a French count.  Supposedly, they’d been madly in love, but her father had already been married, so they couldn’t have wed.  When they’d passed away from the influenza, Amelia and Chase had been disavowed by their French relatives who’d promptly shuttled them off to English boarding schools and never taken an interest in them after that.

Amelia had no antecedents that would recommend her to Lord Sidwell.  The entire notion of her being welcomed into the wealthy, aristocratic family was bizarre and impossibly fantastic, like a princess in a fairytale.

None of it made any sense, and if she’d had the financial resources to leave, she’d have hurried back to the village to wait for the first mail coach that went by.

Not that she had a destination in mind.  Miss Peabody’s school was Amelia’s sole connection to her past.  Her friend and fellow teacher, Rose Ralston, had left for her own wedding.  Her other friend, Evangeline Etherton, was completing the last few chores to prepare the school for the new owner, then she’d depart for her wedding, too.

Amelia was stuck at Sidwell, and she hoped Miss Peabody had arranged a viable conclusion.  If it turned out to be awful, if it turned out to be some sort of trick or deception, Amelia didn’t know what she’d do.

She’d probably have to travel to London to find her brother, Chase, but he was a shifty, shady character, and she had no idea how she’d locate him.

A clock chimed the half-hour, and Amelia jumped, realizing she’d been daydreaming when the most important interview of her life was about to occur.

For reasons that hadn’t been explained, her fiancé was not yet on the premises.  Lord Sidwell hadn’t been present to greet her either, but she’d been ordered to attend him promptly at four in his library.  She was terrified about the appointment and didn’t dare be late.

She rushed to the bed and dumped out the contents of her portmanteau.  Briefly, she considered changing clothes, but she only owned three dresses—all of them a conservative gray with white collars and cuffs—so she had nothing more flattering or glamorous.

She went into the dressing room and assessed herself in the mirror.  Her mother had been a great beauty, and Amelia had inherited her good looks:  dark brunette hair, a slender, shapely figure.  It wasn’t vanity to admit she was pretty, so she thought Lord Sidwell would be pleased.  But still, no amount of beauty could conceal her faded wardrobe or general air of poverty.

The trip to Sidwell had left her pale and weary.  Her green eyes—usually so vibrant and merry—appeared haunted and afraid.  She pinched her cheeks, trying to add a blush, but it didn’t help, and she abandoned the effort.

She walked to the hall and started off.

When the maid had delivered Amelia to her suite, she’d offered to return to escort Amelia down to the library.  Amelia had insisted she could manage on her own, but rapidly, she grew disoriented and became lost.

She was approaching a pair of double doors at the end of a hall that most likely led into another grand suite when she heard a woman moan—as if she was injured or ill.

Amelia halted, listened, heard the moan again.

She couldn’t decide is she should intervene or not.  The manor contained hundreds of rooms and several wings, and since Amelia had arrived, she hadn’t stumbled on another soul.  If someone was hurt, she was the only person available to render aid.

The noises were emanating from the room directly in front of her.  If she barged in, it might be a huge faux pas, and she was anxious to make a good impression and couldn’t commit a foolish act so early in her tenure.  Yet if someone was in trouble, she couldn’t ignore the situation.

The moan echoed a third time, louder and more desperate by the moment.  Without giving herself opportunity to reflect, she spun the knob and peeked inside.

It was a masculine space, decorated with heavy mahogany furniture and dark maroon drapes and carpeting.  The sitting room was empty, but there was movement in the bedchamber beyond.  The door was ajar, and she caught fleeting glimpses of a man and woman who seemed to be wrestling.  Was the woman being ravished?

Amelia’s initial sense was to run out and summon assistance, but it would take forever to find a footman.  In the interim, the woman could be seriously harmed, which Amelia couldn’t allow.

She tiptoed to the fireplace and picked up the poker, worried that she might have to whack a miscreant on the head.  Then she continued on to the bedroom door and peered through the crack.  Only then did she realize that no assault was occurring

The man and woman were avidly kissing.  The moans were coming from the woman, but they weren’t cries of distress.  They were cries of pleasure.  Amelia was embarrassed to the marrow of her bones and weak with relief that she hadn’t blustered in and humiliated herself.

The two lovers were so involved they hadn’t noticed that she was lurking and watching them.  She needed to tiptoe out as quietly as she’d entered, and she had to do it quickly before they glanced over and saw her, but she couldn’t force herself away.

She’d been enrolled at Miss Peabody’s school when she was five, and even though she was now twenty-five, her upbringing had ensured she’d had very limited contact with men or amour.

She’d been kissed exactly three times, the episodes happening as an adolescent at the harvest fair.  Those brief encounters had been thrilling, but also fraught with the danger of discovery.  The embraces had been awkwardly groping and had proved so unsatisfying that Amelia had emerged from the experiences wondering what all the fuss was about.

As an adult, after she’d attained her position of teacher, she hadn’t engaged in any further flirtations, and she hadn’t witnessed any other people kissing, so she hadn’t understood that it could be so wild and feral.

They were clawing and scratching, laughing and biting, waging a sort of carnal dance that was as exotic as it was fascinating.

She studied their attire, attempting to figure out who they were.  The woman appeared to be a housemaid.  She was wearing a plain black dress, a starched white apron tied around her waist, but the man made short work of it.  He yanked on the apron’s bow and tossed it away, then started in on the bodice of her dress, flicking at the buttons and pushing down the sleeves to reveal a spectacularly ample bosom.

“It’s nice that some things never change,” he said.

“I’ve been keeping them warm for you.”  The woman grabbed the shapely mounds as if offering them to him.

“You knew I’d be back?”

“Of course.  You never can stay away.”

Suddenly, a second female chimed in.  “Stop hogging him.  It’s not fair.”

“He always liked me best.”

“He did not.”

The second woman stepped in behind him, her face not visible, and Amelia could only presume she was observing another housemaid.  She’d stripped down to just her petticoat, so her breasts were bared.  They were smaller than the first woman’s, but still rounded and full, the tips pink and sticking out as if proud to be on display.  Amelia was transfixed by the sight.

At Miss Peabody’s school, where there had been limited privacy and modesty expected at all times, Amelia had rarely seen her own bosom, let alone anyone else’s, and the scene excited and disturbed her.  She felt overheated, her pulse racing, her own nipples growing hard.

“You have too many clothes on,” the newcomer told the man.  “We must discard some of them.”

“Gladly.”  He held out his arms as if he was at his tailor’s and being measured for a suit.

Amelia switched her attention to him and was irked to admit that he was incredibly handsome.  He had blond hair, the color of golden wheat, and he wore it too long so it brushed his shoulders as if he was a pirate or brigand.

His eyes were very blue, his face aristocratically formed with high forehead, strong nose and chin.  His skin was bronzed from the sun as if he toiled out-of-doors to earn his living.  Was he a deliveryman?  Was he a tradesman from the village?  Was Lord Sidwell aware that a man sneaked into the manor to cavort with the maids?  Was he aware that his maids were slatterns?

Amelia’s spirits flagged.  What type of domicile had she entered?  What type of family was she marrying into?  If the maids could vanish in the middle of the afternoon without being missed, if they could disrobe and disport in an abandoned bedchamber, who was in charge?

It was shocking misbehavior, and now that Amelia had learned of it, what was her duty to her father-in-law?  Should she tattle?  Should she keep her mouth shut?  If she spoke up, what can of worms would she be opening?  She’d certainly make enemies of the staff, which could never be a benefit.

Lord Sidwell was a widower, so there was no Lady Sidwell to rule the large residence.  Perhaps that was the problem:  There was no mistress, so the servants were free to frolic and debauch.

When Amelia wed Lucas Drake, would she be placed in a role of authority over the servants?  The notion didn’t bear contemplating.  With what she was currently witnessing, she had no desire to supervise such loose doxies.  She’d have no idea how.

Inside the room, the man’s shirt had been removed, and Amelia’s consternation increased.  She couldn’t remember ever seeing a man’s naked chest before, and she grew even more unsettled.

There was a matting of hair across the top, a shade darker than the golden hair on his head.  It thinned to a straight line that ran down his flat, muscled belly and into his trousers.

As with his face, his torso was bronzed from the sun—as if he constantly strutted about unclad.  The prospect was too thrilling to be believed.

She was inundated by an exhilaration she didn’t understand.  For a wild, crazed instant, she yearned to burst into the room, to demand the chance to rub her hands over all that exposed male flesh.

The two women had him wedged between them.  Their upper bodies were bared now, so he had breasts pressed to front and back.  He was grinning, preening, delighted by the sordid escapade.

The woman in front reached down and stroked him between his legs.

“My, my,” she murmured, “you’ve missed us, haven’t you?”

“Only every minute.”

“How long has it been since you had any?”

“Three hours at least.”

This statement appeared to be a private joke with them, and they all laughed.

“You always were a randy dog.”

“And proud of it,” he responded.

“Tell us we’re more fun than any of your regular trollops.”

“You’re much more fun.  It’s no contest.”  He smirked.  “Why do you think I always come back for more?”

Amelia continued to observe, mesmerized as their fervid kissing kicked up once more.  At the same time, he was massaging her breasts, pinching her nipples in a way that had the woman moaning again.

“Hey, love,” the other woman scolded, “give me a turn, will you?  She can’t have you all to herself.”

“I apologize if I’ve been remiss,” he said.

He spun and dipped down and—shocking Amelia to her very core—sucked a nipple into his mouth.  He licked and bit at it, sending the woman into paroxysms of ecstasy, and she put a hand behind his head and pulled him closer, urging him to feast.

Amelia couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move.

Did adults truly behave so brazenly?  Was it common?  She had no idea.

From the strict religious and moral teachings she’d had over the years, she knew they were sinning hideously, yet she was as elated as they seemed to be.  She couldn’t stop watching, couldn’t force herself away.

With each tug of his lips on that nipple, Amelia’s own nipples ached and throbbed, her womb clenching, the secretive woman’s spot between her legs growing warm and wet until she was shamefully aroused.

The man was becoming more amorous.  He tipped his partner backward so she was draped over his arm.  At the change of position, her features were finally visible.

It was the housemaid who’d initially escorted Amelia to her room!  It was the housemaid who’d offered to unpack her bag!  It was the housemaid who’d been assigned to attend Amelia during her stay!  But considering what Amelia was witnessing, she couldn’t imagine how she’d ever look the woman in the eye again.  She’d be too embarrassed to acknowledge her or converse.

She gasped aloud—she couldn’t help it—the fireplace poker sliding to the rug with a muted thud.

The ardent trio heard her, and they froze, scowling.  Their momentary confusion gave Amelia the split second required to turn and run.

As she sprinted through the door, the man said, “Was there someone out there?”

“If there was,” a maid replied, “they definitely got an eyeful.”

Hilarious laughter rang out, but Amelia ignored it and kept on, dashing down the hall as if she was a madwoman.

Distractedly, she’d realized that she’d loitered too long, and was late for her appointment with the earl, which was alarming.

In light of her disoriented state, how would she sit and chat?  How would she pretend she was fine, that she was glad to have arrived?  How would she answer questions, drink tea, and smile prettily?

The squalid scene was burned in her mind, and it seemed an ill omen.  If this was her beginning, how would the rest of it go?

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Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

“I’m here.  I’ve arrived.”

Feeling overwhelmed and a tad lost, Amelia Hubbard called out her announcement to the empty bedchamber.  But she was alone, so there was no one to hear or reply.

She’d been given a grand, ostentatious suite—a sitting room, bedroom, and dressing room—located in a drafty, isolated wing of Sidwell Manor.  A rented carriage had brought her to the estate, and after being deposited in the front drive, a maid had led her in and wound them through the quiet halls.

Her battered portmanteau was on the bed.  It contained all of Amelia’s worldly possessions, and it looked terribly shabby and much too threadbare to have been carried inside.  The maid had offered to unpack it, but Amelia had declined any assistance.

She hadn’t wanted the girl to see the pitiful condition of Amelia’s clothes.  Then again, with the plain gray dress she was currently wearing, her penury was obvious.  The posh décor only highlighted the odd contradiction created by her presence.

At age twenty-five, she’d spent the prior two decades at Miss Peabody’s School for Girls, first as a student, then as a teacher.  She’d never precisely thought of herself as poor.  She’d always had a roof over her head and food to eat.  Once she’d become a teacher, she’d earned an income, too.  It hadn’t been much, but it had furnished a sense of independence and security.

Yet with her surroundings revealed, she couldn’t help but be perturbed by her overt poverty.  The stark disparity between her circumstances and that of her host unnerved her as nothing else had so far.

Hadn’t she been anxious from the start?  Hadn’t she been disconcerted by the swiftness of events?

After a long and painful decline, Miss Peabody had died.  Out of the blue, her attorney had visited to declare that the school would be shut down and sold, the students sent away.  Amelia’s teaching position had ended as abruptly as a snap of the fingers.

During Miss Peabody’s last days, she’d told Amelia and the other two teachers—Rose Ralston and Evangeline Etherton—that she’d provided for them in her will.  They’d naively and foolishly assumed they’d receive a monetary bequest, that they could pool their funds and buy the school themselves.

So it had come as a huge shock to learn that their inheritances weren’t pecuniary at all.  Miss Peabody had dowered them and arranged marriages to men they’d never met.  She’d never wed or had children herself, and apparently, she’d regretted that fact and had wanted Amelia, Rose, and Evangeline to have a different option.

Amelia was an orphan with no prospects and no family except for her wayward brother, Chase.  She’d never expected to wed, so it had never occurred to her that she’d have the option, but she’d reluctantly agreed to Miss Peabody’s scheme.

With the school being closed, if Amelia hadn’t accepted the fiancé Miss Peabody had selected, she’d have had no money and nowhere to go.  Matrimony had suddenly been a very good choice, and she’d grudgingly journeyed off to her husband’s home.

But now that she’d arrived…well…

Every part of the situation seemed wrong—as if there were factors in play of which she hadn’t been apprised.

Her betrothed was Lucas Drake, of the Sidwell Drakes.  The name hadn’t meant anything to her and hadn’t concerned her much until the carriage had passed through the gates and rumbled down the orchard-lined lane to the manor.

It was a three-story mansion, perfectly placed on a sloping hill so the occupants could gaze out at the thousands and thousands of acres of their land holdings.

Her prospective father-in-law, George Drake, was Lord Sidwell, an earl and peer of the realm.  Why would such a lofty person pick lowly, ordinary, and very common Amelia Hubbard to marry one of his sons?  How could Miss Peabody have crossed paths with such an eminent individual?  How was she able to persuade him that Amelia was a suitable candidate to join the Drake family?

Amelia’s mother had been a British actress, her father a French count.  Supposedly, they’d been madly in love, but her father had already been married, so they couldn’t have wed.  When they’d passed away from the influenza, Amelia and Chase had been disavowed by their French relatives who’d promptly shuttled them off to English boarding schools and never taken an interest in them after that.

Amelia had no antecedents that would recommend her to Lord Sidwell.  The entire notion of her being welcomed into the wealthy, aristocratic family was bizarre and impossibly fantastic, like a princess in a fairytale.

None of it made any sense, and if she’d had the financial resources to leave, she’d have hurried back to the village to wait for the first mail coach that went by.

Not that she had a destination in mind.  Miss Peabody’s school was Amelia’s sole connection to her past.  Her friend and fellow teacher, Rose Ralston, had left for her own wedding.  Her other friend, Evangeline Etherton, was completing the last few chores to prepare the school for the new owner, then she’d depart for her wedding, too.

Amelia was stuck at Sidwell, and she hoped Miss Peabody had arranged a viable conclusion.  If it turned out to be awful, if it turned out to be some sort of trick or deception, Amelia didn’t know what she’d do.

She’d probably have to travel to London to find her brother, Chase, but he was a shifty, shady character, and she had no idea how she’d locate him.

A clock chimed the half-hour, and Amelia jumped, realizing she’d been daydreaming when the most important interview of her life was about to occur.

For reasons that hadn’t been explained, her fiancé was not yet on the premises.  Lord Sidwell hadn’t been present to greet her either, but she’d been ordered to attend him promptly at four in his library.  She was terrified about the appointment and didn’t dare be late.

She rushed to the bed and dumped out the contents of her portmanteau.  Briefly, she considered changing clothes, but she only owned three dresses—all of them a conservative gray with white collars and cuffs—so she had nothing more flattering or glamorous.

She went into the dressing room and assessed herself in the mirror.  Her mother had been a great beauty, and Amelia had inherited her good looks:  dark brunette hair, a slender, shapely figure.  It wasn’t vanity to admit she was pretty, so she thought Lord Sidwell would be pleased.  But still, no amount of beauty could conceal her faded wardrobe or general air of poverty.

The trip to Sidwell had left her pale and weary.  Her green eyes—usually so vibrant and merry—appeared haunted and afraid.  She pinched her cheeks, trying to add a blush, but it didn’t help, and she abandoned the effort.

She walked to the hall and started off.

When the maid had delivered Amelia to her suite, she’d offered to return to escort Amelia down to the library.  Amelia had insisted she could manage on her own, but rapidly, she grew disoriented and became lost.

She was approaching a pair of double doors at the end of a hall that most likely led into another grand suite when she heard a woman moan—as if she was injured or ill.

Amelia halted, listened, heard the moan again.

She couldn’t decide is she should intervene or not.  The manor contained hundreds of rooms and several wings, and since Amelia had arrived, she hadn’t stumbled on another soul.  If someone was hurt, she was the only person available to render aid.

The noises were emanating from the room directly in front of her.  If she barged in, it might be a huge faux pas, and she was anxious to make a good impression and couldn’t commit a foolish act so early in her tenure.  Yet if someone was in trouble, she couldn’t ignore the situation.

The moan echoed a third time, louder and more desperate by the moment.  Without giving herself opportunity to reflect, she spun the knob and peeked inside.

It was a masculine space, decorated with heavy mahogany furniture and dark maroon drapes and carpeting.  The sitting room was empty, but there was movement in the bedchamber beyond.  The door was ajar, and she caught fleeting glimpses of a man and woman who seemed to be wrestling.  Was the woman being ravished?

Amelia’s initial sense was to run out and summon assistance, but it would take forever to find a footman.  In the interim, the woman could be seriously harmed, which Amelia couldn’t allow.

She tiptoed to the fireplace and picked up the poker, worried that she might have to whack a miscreant on the head.  Then she continued on to the bedroom door and peered through the crack.  Only then did she realize that no assault was occurring

The man and woman were avidly kissing.  The moans were coming from the woman, but they weren’t cries of distress.  They were cries of pleasure.  Amelia was embarrassed to the marrow of her bones and weak with relief that she hadn’t blustered in and humiliated herself.

The two lovers were so involved they hadn’t noticed that she was lurking and watching them.  She needed to tiptoe out as quietly as she’d entered, and she had to do it quickly before they glanced over and saw her, but she couldn’t force herself away.

She’d been enrolled at Miss Peabody’s school when she was five, and even though she was now twenty-five, her upbringing had ensured she’d had very limited contact with men or amour.

She’d been kissed exactly three times, the episodes happening as an adolescent at the harvest fair.  Those brief encounters had been thrilling, but also fraught with the danger of discovery.  The embraces had been awkwardly groping and had proved so unsatisfying that Amelia had emerged from the experiences wondering what all the fuss was about.

As an adult, after she’d attained her position of teacher, she hadn’t engaged in any further flirtations, and she hadn’t witnessed any other people kissing, so she hadn’t understood that it could be so wild and feral.

They were clawing and scratching, laughing and biting, waging a sort of carnal dance that was as exotic as it was fascinating.

She studied their attire, attempting to figure out who they were.  The woman appeared to be a housemaid.  She was wearing a plain black dress, a starched white apron tied around her waist, but the man made short work of it.  He yanked on the apron’s bow and tossed it away, then started in on the bodice of her dress, flicking at the buttons and pushing down the sleeves to reveal a spectacularly ample bosom.

“It’s nice that some things never change,” he said.

“I’ve been keeping them warm for you.”  The woman grabbed the shapely mounds as if offering them to him.

“You knew I’d be back?”

“Of course.  You never can stay away.”

Suddenly, a second female chimed in.  “Stop hogging him.  It’s not fair.”

“He always liked me best.”

“He did not.”

The second woman stepped in behind him, her face not visible, and Amelia could only presume she was observing another housemaid.  She’d stripped down to just her petticoat, so her breasts were bared.  They were smaller than the first woman’s, but still rounded and full, the tips pink and sticking out as if proud to be on display.  Amelia was transfixed by the sight.

At Miss Peabody’s school, where there had been limited privacy and modesty expected at all times, Amelia had rarely seen her own bosom, let alone anyone else’s, and the scene excited and disturbed her.  She felt overheated, her pulse racing, her own nipples growing hard.

“You have too many clothes on,” the newcomer told the man.  “We must discard some of them.”

“Gladly.”  He held out his arms as if he was at his tailor’s and being measured for a suit.

Amelia switched her attention to him and was irked to admit that he was incredibly handsome.  He had blond hair, the color of golden wheat, and he wore it too long so it brushed his shoulders as if he was a pirate or brigand.

His eyes were very blue, his face aristocratically formed with high forehead, strong nose and chin.  His skin was bronzed from the sun as if he toiled out-of-doors to earn his living.  Was he a deliveryman?  Was he a tradesman from the village?  Was Lord Sidwell aware that a man sneaked into the manor to cavort with the maids?  Was he aware that his maids were slatterns?

Amelia’s spirits flagged.  What type of domicile had she entered?  What type of family was she marrying into?  If the maids could vanish in the middle of the afternoon without being missed, if they could disrobe and disport in an abandoned bedchamber, who was in charge?

It was shocking misbehavior, and now that Amelia had learned of it, what was her duty to her father-in-law?  Should she tattle?  Should she keep her mouth shut?  If she spoke up, what can of worms would she be opening?  She’d certainly make enemies of the staff, which could never be a benefit.

Lord Sidwell was a widower, so there was no Lady Sidwell to rule the large residence.  Perhaps that was the problem:  There was no mistress, so the servants were free to frolic and debauch.

When Amelia wed Lucas Drake, would she be placed in a role of authority over the servants?  The notion didn’t bear contemplating.  With what she was currently witnessing, she had no desire to supervise such loose doxies.  She’d have no idea how.

Inside the room, the man’s shirt had been removed, and Amelia’s consternation increased.  She couldn’t remember ever seeing a man’s naked chest before, and she grew even more unsettled.

There was a matting of hair across the top, a shade darker than the golden hair on his head.  It thinned to a straight line that ran down his flat, muscled belly and into his trousers.

As with his face, his torso was bronzed from the sun—as if he constantly strutted about unclad.  The prospect was too thrilling to be believed.

She was inundated by an exhilaration she didn’t understand.  For a wild, crazed instant, she yearned to burst into the room, to demand the chance to rub her hands over all that exposed male flesh.

The two women had him wedged between them.  Their upper bodies were bared now, so he had breasts pressed to front and back.  He was grinning, preening, delighted by the sordid escapade.

The woman in front reached down and stroked him between his legs.

“My, my,” she murmured, “you’ve missed us, haven’t you?”

“Only every minute.”

“How long has it been since you had any?”

“Three hours at least.”

This statement appeared to be a private joke with them, and they all laughed.

“You always were a randy dog.”

“And proud of it,” he responded.

“Tell us we’re more fun than any of your regular trollops.”

“You’re much more fun.  It’s no contest.”  He smirked.  “Why do you think I always come back for more?”

Amelia continued to observe, mesmerized as their fervid kissing kicked up once more.  At the same time, he was massaging her breasts, pinching her nipples in a way that had the woman moaning again.

“Hey, love,” the other woman scolded, “give me a turn, will you?  She can’t have you all to herself.”

“I apologize if I’ve been remiss,” he said.

He spun and dipped down and—shocking Amelia to her very core—sucked a nipple into his mouth.  He licked and bit at it, sending the woman into paroxysms of ecstasy, and she put a hand behind his head and pulled him closer, urging him to feast.

Amelia couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move.

Did adults truly behave so brazenly?  Was it common?  She had no idea.

From the strict religious and moral teachings she’d had over the years, she knew they were sinning hideously, yet she was as elated as they seemed to be.  She couldn’t stop watching, couldn’t force herself away.

With each tug of his lips on that nipple, Amelia’s own nipples ached and throbbed, her womb clenching, the secretive woman’s spot between her legs growing warm and wet until she was shamefully aroused.

The man was becoming more amorous.  He tipped his partner backward so she was draped over his arm.  At the change of position, her features were finally visible.

It was the housemaid who’d initially escorted Amelia to her room!  It was the housemaid who’d offered to unpack her bag!  It was the housemaid who’d been assigned to attend Amelia during her stay!  But considering what Amelia was witnessing, she couldn’t imagine how she’d ever look the woman in the eye again.  She’d be too embarrassed to acknowledge her or converse.

She gasped aloud—she couldn’t help it—the fireplace poker sliding to the rug with a muted thud.

The ardent trio heard her, and they froze, scowling.  Their momentary confusion gave Amelia the split second required to turn and run.

As she sprinted through the door, the man said, “Was there someone out there?”

“If there was,” a maid replied, “they definitely got an eyeful.”

Hilarious laughter rang out, but Amelia ignored it and kept on, dashing down the hall as if she was a madwoman.

Distractedly, she’d realized that she’d loitered too long, and was late for her appointment with the earl, which was alarming.

In light of her disoriented state, how would she sit and chat?  How would she pretend she was fine, that she was glad to have arrived?  How would she answer questions, drink tea, and smile prettily?

The squalid scene was burned in her mind, and it seemed an ill omen.  If this was her beginning, how would the rest of it go?

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