skip to Main Content

Wonderful

Wonderful

New York Times bestselling author, CHERYL HOLT will leave readers cheering with the dazzling, sexy conclusion to her “Reluctant Brides” trilogy…

Evangeline Etherton loved her years as a teacher at Miss Peabody’s School for Girls. But with Miss Peabody’s passing, the school is shut down, and Evangeline is on her way to marry a fiancé she’s never met. She never imagined herself as a bride and is reluctant to abandon the independent life she enjoyed as an unwed female. When she meets her fiancé—a fussy, stern vicar—she’s certain she shouldn’t proceed. They have nothing common and a match between them can only lead to disaster and misery. But as a spinster with no funds or family, she’s out of options.

Aaron Drake has always been perfect. As the eldest son and heir to an earl, he’s never engaged in mischief, taken an awkward step, or headed in the wrong direction. But with his marriage swiftly approaching—to a tedious, unpleasant snob—he’s suddenly desperate to do something reckless and wild before he’s shackled in what he’s sure will be an unappealing and dreary marriage. When he meets pretty, vivacious Evangeline, he can’t help but think she just might be the cure for what ails him.

Seduction seems the only path, but when romance blossoms and passions heat, can love be far behind?

Link Premise (click to enlarge)

Reluctant Brides

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

Wonderful Letter

Buy Links

buy-amazonbuy-kindlebuy-nookbuy-ibooksbuy-kobo

CHAPTER ONE

“Will there be anything else, Miss?”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

Evangeline Etherton stood still as a statue, observing as the housemaid walked to the door, about to leave Evangeline to her own devices.  A smile of joy was bubbling up, and Evangeline could barely hide it.

At the last second, the girl said, “Oh, I forgot.  Cook wanted to know if it would be all right to serve your supper in the small dining room.”

“Where is it usually served?” Evangeline asked.

“Well, if Lord Run is here, he uses the larger dining room, but it’s quite big and grand.  Cook felt you might rather use the smaller one.”

“The smaller one will be perfect,” Evangeline insisted, “and please tell everyone there’s no need to make a fuss.  Just feed me once in a while, and I’m happy.”

The housemaid dipped a curtsy, which was very polite but completely unnecessary.  “I’ll spread the word to the other servants.”

“Thank you.”

She left, and Evangeline was finally alone.

She listened as the maid’s footsteps faded down the hall, then she lifted her arms and twirled in merry circles.

The suite she’d been given was too beautiful to be believed.  With sitting room, bedroom, and dressing room, it was fit for a princess.  The furniture was expensive and tasteful, the wallpaper a warm shade of yellow that seemed to glow.

She might have been dropped into a fairytale.

The dressing room had a silver bathing tub, the cupboards full of plush towels and scented soaps.  The entire place was so much more than she’d expected, and she’d get to stay for a whole month, but she deemed the sojourn a fair reward for what was coming after that month ended.

There was a door that led out onto a balcony, and she slipped outside to gaze at the manicured garden and rolling hills beyond.  The manor was called Fox Run, and she wondered what it would be like to own such a property.  She couldn’t imagine.

At age twenty-five, she had no prior opportunity to experience opulence.  She’d been orphaned as a toddler and sent to Miss Peabody’s School for Girls.  Supposedly, a kindly benefactor had paid her tuition, though Miss Peabody had refused to say who it was or why charity had been extended.

Evangeline had been reared under Miss Peabody’s watchful eye, had received a brilliant education, and after graduation, had been invited to remain as a teacher.  Her skills at singing, theatricals, and playing musical instruments had guaranteed her a spot on the faculty that had included her two best friends, Rose Ralston and Amelia Hubbard.

They’d both been orphaned girls too, and had grown up with Evangeline and been hired as teachers by Miss Peabody.

But Miss Peabody had passed away, the school was closed, and their days as spinster schoolteachers were over.  The next phase of their lives was just beginning.

Through the trees, she could see the steeple of the church in the village, and it was a reminder that her future was about to arrive, and very quickly too.  She tamped down a shudder and went back inside, not eager to stare at the church and be unnerved by the sight.

She’d promised to come.  She’d promised to proceed.  It was too late to worry or second guess.

She was to wed Vicar Ignatius Bosworth.  Miss Peabody had contracted the betrothal shortly before her death.  Evangeline had never planned to marry, and didn’t actually wish to marry now, but she’d had no alternative.

She hadn’t met the vicar yet, and had been provided with only a few facts about him, those contained in a one-page letter of introduction he’d personally penned.

He was forty and had two hobbies—he liked to read in front of the fire at night, and he liked to study Scripture.  He’d never been wed, but was at a spot financially where he could support a wife.

In the miniature portrait he’d furnished, there’d been no attempt to enhance his features.  He was balding, severe in appearance, clean shaven, and a tad gaunt.

Homely as mud.  The spiteful thought was awful, and she shoved it away.

If she’d previously fantasized about someday having a handsome, dashing husband, those were juvenile dreams and not worthy of the woman she’d become.  She wasn’t fickle or immature, and she wouldn’t judge the man by his looks.  She had no option but to marry, and she was in no position to be picky.

They’d get on fine.  They would!  She was fun loving and cheerful, and she made people happy with her singing and other musical talent.  She’d make him happy too.

Suddenly, her pulse was racing.  She tried to picture herself sitting by the fire, listening to her husband expound on obscure Bible passages, but the vision left her so anxious that she felt nauseous.

She swallowed down her burgeoning panic and hurried to the bedchamber to unpack her portmanteau.  From her years under Miss Peabody’s tutelage, she knew that useful activity was the best medicine for stress and unease.

Miss Peabody had been a stickler for proper behavior, and Evangeline—with her singing and flamboyant character—had been a constant trial to the older woman.  Evangeline had been scolded and punished so frequently that she’d never understood why Miss Peabody had kept her on as a teacher.

Evangeline had learned to tamp down her outbursts of gaiety, to ignore her true inclinations.  She learned to never reflect on how ill-suited she was to the only choices available.

In a world where she was required to exhibit a modest, humble demeanor, she loved to show off and perform, and if she could have arranged the perfect future for herself, she might have been an actress on the stage in London.  But of course, such a sensational path would be insane, and she could never figure out why she was overcome by such wild ideas.

She had to find a way to take her mind off her troubles, so she decided to go exploring.  The manor belonged to Aaron Drake, Lord Run, a viscount who was son and heir to George Drake, Earl of Sidwell, but also a distant cousin to Vicar Bosworth.

Lord Run was rarely in the country, the house standing empty most of the time.  The vicar’s mother had contacted him, and he’d agreed that Evangeline could stay at Fox Run during the month leading up to her wedding.

She was certain her duties as a country vicar’s wife would be very dreary, so during her visit, she intended to revel.  She would secretly pretend the property was hers, would act as if she’d been born to luxury and extravagance, and she often wondered if she hadn’t been.

Occasionally, she dreamed of mansions and fancy carriages and elegant attire.  Her dreams were so disturbingly real that she suspected they must have some basis in her past, which she didn’t remember.

Evangeline had had no choice but to accept her engagement, and she’d sworn to herself that she’d work hard, that she would be the best vicar’s wife who had ever lived, but she couldn’t quite believe she fit the role Miss Peabody had selected for her.

She went to the wardrobe, but she owned only a handful of clothes, so there was little to put away.  Three dresses—all gray with white collars and cuffs.  A nightgown.  Underclothes.  A wool cloak for winter.  Winter boots too.

And one very pretty day dress that she’d saved for years to buy.  It was a fetching violet shade that highlighted the blond of her hair and the deep sapphire of her eyes.  When she wore it, she felt she was someone other than a boring spinster and schoolteacher.

She took a last look at the meager pile, having to admit that—with her marrying a vicar—it was probably all she’d ever possess.  Somehow, she didn’t imagine there would be money in the household budget for frivolities such as stylish gowns.

Finished with her chore, she marched out, ready for an adventure.  Such an ornate residence would have a music room filled with instruments, and she was eager to locate it.

She roamed about, poking her nose into deserted galleries and salons.  It was late afternoon, and the house was very quiet, the servants likely in the kitchen and having tea.  So it came as a huge surprise when a woman’s sultry laughter drifted by, when the low rumble of a man’s voice answered the woman.

Evangeline slowed and began to tiptoe, worried over who it might be.  Was it Lord Run?  What would it mean if he was suddenly on the premises?  Could she remain a guest at Fox Run until her wedding?

Oh, she hoped so!  She’d only just arrived.  She would hate to have to depart so soon.

She found the pair at the end of the hall in what had to be the house’s most ostentatious suite, decorated with mahogany furniture, maroon drapes and rugs.  Every item bespoke comfort, wealth, and pleasure.  Evangeline neared and peeked through the crack in the door.

They were in the sitting room, the man lounged in a chair, the woman—very beautiful, very exotic—prancing about in front of him.  With fiery auburn hair and big green eyes, she was tugging the combs from her hair, letting it fall down her back in a curly wave.

She was about Evangeline’s same height of five feet five inches and probably Evangeline’s same age of twenty-five, but the similarities stopped there.

She was wearing a lush emerald gown that hugged her voluptuous figure, and she was glamorous and confident in a manner Evangeline had always struggled not to be.

As to the man, he was incredibly handsome.  Broad shoulders, flat belly, dark hair, blue, blue eyes.  He had a face like an angel.  Or maybe a devil.  He hadn’t shaved, so his cheeks were stubbled, making him appear dashing and reckless and dangerous.

His skin was bronzed from the sun, and he was robust and vigorous.  Since he was seated, it was hard to guess his height, but Evangeline suspected he’d be very tall, six feet at least.  He was dressed in expensive clothes, black riding boots, tan trousers, a flowing white shirt that was open part way, providing a glimpse of his chest, and Evangeline’s innards tickled at the sight.

It was horrid to spy, but she’d never seen such a delicious male specimen and couldn’t look away.

“You want me,” the woman was saying.  “You know you do.  Admit it.”

“If I do or if I don’t, Florella, how can it matter?”

“Not matter!” the woman, Florella, huffed.  “This has been brewing between us for an entire year.  Why not get on with it?  We’ll both be happier once it’s over.”

“Doesn’t Bryce have an exclusive arrangement with you?  What’s he paying you for if not for your exclusivity?”

“He might be paying me to be his mistress,” she saucily retorted, “but he doesn’t own me, and he doesn’t pick my friends.  When he’s not around, he can’t dictate who I can entertain and who I can’t.”

Evangeline was so shocked to hear the word mistress that she could barely bite down a gasp of astonishment.  Living as she had at a girl’s boarding school, she’d never associated with loose or disreputable people.  If Florella was truly a mistress, then she qualified as being the most scandalous person Evangeline had ever encountered.

Florella was unbuttoning her dress, the fabric falling away to reveal a very shapely bosom.  The man watched, seeming bored, as if he regularly viewed naked flesh and was too jaded to be moved by it.

Florella’s sleeves were next, as she exposed a very frilly, very elaborate corset.

The man arched an arrogant brow.  “Bryce spends enough to keep you in very fine undergarments.”

“Yes, he does.  Lucky me.”  Florella grabbed her breasts, as if offering them to the man, and she grinned.  “Are you hungry?  Would you like a little nibble?”

“If I said yes”—the man shrugged—“how would I explain it to Bryce?  I’m too honest for my own good, and I’d feel compelled to tell him.”

“I’ll tell him myself.  You won’t have to.”

“He’s my friend,” the man insisted.

“So he won’t mind sharing.”

Florella hiked up skirt and petticoat and climbed onto his lap, straddling him so her bosom was directly in his face.  She was riffling her fingers through his hair, fussing with his shirt.  She leaned down and touched her lips to his in a brief kiss that thrilled Evangeline.

She observed all, riveted by a peculiar sort of excitement she didn’t understand.

She’d had very limited experiences with men in her life, had never had a beau, or even a close male acquaintance.  She’d been kissed several times, but that had been when she was an adolescent and allowed to attend the harvest fair.  She’d sneaked off with a few boys and had found the groping and pawing to be particularly stimulating, but much of the exhilaration was due to the danger involved.

If Miss Peabody had ever learned of the indiscretions, there was no predicting what might have happened.  Evangeline would likely have been expelled, and as she’d gotten older, she’d had the sense not to flirt.  So it had been years since she’d participated in a romantic interlude, and she’d never seen two adults kissing.

She’d always heard risqué stories about how adults behaved when they were alone, but she’d never expected to witness such antics.  Her rampant curiosity was one of her worst traits, she wasn’t about to creep away before she saw quite a bit more.

“Bryce won’t care,” Florella persisted, her lips brushing the man’s again.  “He’s very generous, and he likes me to be happy.”

“And you’d be happy if we were lovers?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

The man scoffed.  “If you think Bryce would be nonchalant about it, you’re mad.”

“If he’s upset by it, we can switch.  I’ll leave him, and you can have me instead.”

“Me!  I have no desire to support you.  I’d have to take out a loan merely to keep you in undergarments.”

“I have very expensive tastes.”

“Poor Bryce.  How does he afford you?”

“I’m worth it,” Florella claimed.

The entire moment was so erotically charged that Evangeline could scarcely breathe.  She felt as if she’d stumbled on an alien world she hadn’t known to exist.  She wanted to burst into the room, to question them about their relationship, their opinions on sin and morality.

How could they so flagrantly eschew decency and decorum?  How did they rationalize it?  How would they carry on later, when they were seated across from each other at the supper table?

Florella appeared frozen, as if waiting for something special to transpire, but the man wasn’t inclined to oblige her.  Ultimately, he said, “I’ll ask Bryce.  If he gives me permission, I’ll consider it.”

“Oh, you beast.  Didn’t you travel to the country to enjoy yourself?  If you’re going to be a stick in the mud, what’s the point?”

“The point is I won’t deceive a friend.”

“You men!” Florella snorted.  “As if you have any loyalty.”

“I have some, not a lot, but some.  I wouldn’t waste it on you.”

Florella began massaging her breasts, her crafty fingers circling round and round as if trying to mesmerize him.  The movement had Evangeline eager to touch her own breasts.  Her nipples were throbbing with an ache she’d never noted before.

Her skin was tingling, her ears ringing, and she was so fixated on the pair that a wild bull could have raced up and she would have noticed.

“Boo!” a man whispered from directly behind her.

“Ah!”

Evangeline yelped with fright and lurched away from him, and it pitched her into the room where the lovers were still together in their chair.

At her sudden arrival, they both stiffened with surprise, then Florella leapt to her feet, shoving her skirt down her legs.  She whipped away, showing Evangeline her back, yanking at her sleeves and bodice.

The man who’d snuck up on Evangeline was probably thirty, and he looked enough like her, with the same blond hair and blue eyes, to be a relative.  He snapped, “For God’s sakes, Florella, cover yourself.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Florella said.

“You’re such a whore,” the blond man declared, but without any rancor.  “I don’t know why I put up with you.”

As with the prior word mistress, Evangeline had never previously heard a person utter the word whore, and she was stunned to the core of her being.  What type of asylum had she entered, and what was she to do now?

“She wanted a tumble,” the dark-haired man explained, “but I thought I should check with you first to see if you’d mind.”

“Honestly, Florella,” the blond man scolded, “we’re all aware that he’s richer than me, but stop being a mercenary for two seconds, would you?”

“Sorry,” Florella said again.  She turned toward Evangeline, which meant they all three turned.

“What have we here?” the dark-haired man asked, still lounged in his chair as if nothing odd had occurred.

“The door was ajar.  She was peeking through the crack.”

“Well, she certainly got an eyeful.”

“I scared the devil out of her.”  The blond man approached and made a slight bow to Evangeline.  “I’m Bryce Blair.”  He waved dismissively at Florella.  “This is my good—and very disreputable—friend, Miss Florella Bernard.  And this”—he gestured to the man in the chair—“is Aaron Drake, Viscount Run.”

Evangeline’s heart sank.

Lord Run was the owner of the estate, her host, and cousin to Evangeline’s betrothed, Vicar Bosworth.  What was she supposed to say?  How could she justify her conduct?  What if he tattled to Vicar Bosworth?  Evangeline’s engagement would likely be over before it had begun.

“Hello,” she glumly mumbled.

“And you are…?” Lord Run inquired.

“Miss Evangeline Etherton.”  He gaped at her, clearly not recognizing her name, so she added, “I’m your houseguest.”

My houseguest?” Lord Run said.  “I don’t have a houseguest.”

“Yes…ah…the vicar’s mother, Widow Bosworth, arranged it with you.”

“That’s very curious.  I don’t remember her contacting me.”

The three of them were staring as if Evangeline had grown a second head, but Lord Run’s assessment was the most intense of all, his shrewd gaze probing for information and details that Evangeline had no idea how to supply.  She flashed a tepid smile, hoping to generate a hint of a smile in return, but he simply glared and pointed to her gray dress.

“Are you a nanny?  A governess?  What?”

There was no way to hide her identity.  She had to reveal herself.  He’d learn who she was soon enough.

“I’m the vicar’s fiancée.”

There was a shocked silence, then Mr. Blair asked, “Vicar Bosworth—as in Ignatius Bosworth?”

“Yes,” Evangeline said.

“He’s marrying?  Truly?” Mr. Blair persisted.

Miss Bernard chimed in with, “He’s marrying you?”

“Yes.”

Lord Run seemed the most bewildered by the news.  He studied her even more intensely.  Finally, he said, “You are engaged to Cousin Iggy?  Seriously?”

“Yes.”  It might have been the sole word Evangeline could speak.

There was another fraught silence, then the trio burst out laughing in loud, rude guffaws.

Evangeline had never been more mortified and didn’t know why they were so amused.  Was she an inappropriate bride for the vicar?  Was she too far beneath him?  Or was the vicar inspiring their hilarity?  Were they surprised by his betrothal?  Were they humored that he’d settled on Evangeline?  Why would they be?

Was Vicar Bosworth horrid?  Was Evangeline the only one who hadn’t been apprised?  What sort of mess had Miss Peabody orchestrated?

What’s so funny? she yearned to demand.

But instead, she spun and ran, their chortles following her down the hall.

+ Watch the Video
+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

“Will there be anything else, Miss?”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

Evangeline Etherton stood still as a statue, observing as the housemaid walked to the door, about to leave Evangeline to her own devices.  A smile of joy was bubbling up, and Evangeline could barely hide it.

At the last second, the girl said, “Oh, I forgot.  Cook wanted to know if it would be all right to serve your supper in the small dining room.”

“Where is it usually served?” Evangeline asked.

“Well, if Lord Run is here, he uses the larger dining room, but it’s quite big and grand.  Cook felt you might rather use the smaller one.”

“The smaller one will be perfect,” Evangeline insisted, “and please tell everyone there’s no need to make a fuss.  Just feed me once in a while, and I’m happy.”

The housemaid dipped a curtsy, which was very polite but completely unnecessary.  “I’ll spread the word to the other servants.”

“Thank you.”

She left, and Evangeline was finally alone.

She listened as the maid’s footsteps faded down the hall, then she lifted her arms and twirled in merry circles.

The suite she’d been given was too beautiful to be believed.  With sitting room, bedroom, and dressing room, it was fit for a princess.  The furniture was expensive and tasteful, the wallpaper a warm shade of yellow that seemed to glow.

She might have been dropped into a fairytale.

The dressing room had a silver bathing tub, the cupboards full of plush towels and scented soaps.  The entire place was so much more than she’d expected, and she’d get to stay for a whole month, but she deemed the sojourn a fair reward for what was coming after that month ended.

There was a door that led out onto a balcony, and she slipped outside to gaze at the manicured garden and rolling hills beyond.  The manor was called Fox Run, and she wondered what it would be like to own such a property.  She couldn’t imagine.

At age twenty-five, she had no prior opportunity to experience opulence.  She’d been orphaned as a toddler and sent to Miss Peabody’s School for Girls.  Supposedly, a kindly benefactor had paid her tuition, though Miss Peabody had refused to say who it was or why charity had been extended.

Evangeline had been reared under Miss Peabody’s watchful eye, had received a brilliant education, and after graduation, had been invited to remain as a teacher.  Her skills at singing, theatricals, and playing musical instruments had guaranteed her a spot on the faculty that had included her two best friends, Rose Ralston and Amelia Hubbard.

They’d both been orphaned girls too, and had grown up with Evangeline and been hired as teachers by Miss Peabody.

But Miss Peabody had passed away, the school was closed, and their days as spinster schoolteachers were over.  The next phase of their lives was just beginning.

Through the trees, she could see the steeple of the church in the village, and it was a reminder that her future was about to arrive, and very quickly too.  She tamped down a shudder and went back inside, not eager to stare at the church and be unnerved by the sight.

She’d promised to come.  She’d promised to proceed.  It was too late to worry or second guess.

She was to wed Vicar Ignatius Bosworth.  Miss Peabody had contracted the betrothal shortly before her death.  Evangeline had never planned to marry, and didn’t actually wish to marry now, but she’d had no alternative.

She hadn’t met the vicar yet, and had been provided with only a few facts about him, those contained in a one-page letter of introduction he’d personally penned.

He was forty and had two hobbies—he liked to read in front of the fire at night, and he liked to study Scripture.  He’d never been wed, but was at a spot financially where he could support a wife.

In the miniature portrait he’d furnished, there’d been no attempt to enhance his features.  He was balding, severe in appearance, clean shaven, and a tad gaunt.

Homely as mud.  The spiteful thought was awful, and she shoved it away.

If she’d previously fantasized about someday having a handsome, dashing husband, those were juvenile dreams and not worthy of the woman she’d become.  She wasn’t fickle or immature, and she wouldn’t judge the man by his looks.  She had no option but to marry, and she was in no position to be picky.

They’d get on fine.  They would!  She was fun loving and cheerful, and she made people happy with her singing and other musical talent.  She’d make him happy too.

Suddenly, her pulse was racing.  She tried to picture herself sitting by the fire, listening to her husband expound on obscure Bible passages, but the vision left her so anxious that she felt nauseous.

She swallowed down her burgeoning panic and hurried to the bedchamber to unpack her portmanteau.  From her years under Miss Peabody’s tutelage, she knew that useful activity was the best medicine for stress and unease.

Miss Peabody had been a stickler for proper behavior, and Evangeline—with her singing and flamboyant character—had been a constant trial to the older woman.  Evangeline had been scolded and punished so frequently that she’d never understood why Miss Peabody had kept her on as a teacher.

Evangeline had learned to tamp down her outbursts of gaiety, to ignore her true inclinations.  She learned to never reflect on how ill-suited she was to the only choices available.

In a world where she was required to exhibit a modest, humble demeanor, she loved to show off and perform, and if she could have arranged the perfect future for herself, she might have been an actress on the stage in London.  But of course, such a sensational path would be insane, and she could never figure out why she was overcome by such wild ideas.

She had to find a way to take her mind off her troubles, so she decided to go exploring.  The manor belonged to Aaron Drake, Lord Run, a viscount who was son and heir to George Drake, Earl of Sidwell, but also a distant cousin to Vicar Bosworth.

Lord Run was rarely in the country, the house standing empty most of the time.  The vicar’s mother had contacted him, and he’d agreed that Evangeline could stay at Fox Run during the month leading up to her wedding.

She was certain her duties as a country vicar’s wife would be very dreary, so during her visit, she intended to revel.  She would secretly pretend the property was hers, would act as if she’d been born to luxury and extravagance, and she often wondered if she hadn’t been.

Occasionally, she dreamed of mansions and fancy carriages and elegant attire.  Her dreams were so disturbingly real that she suspected they must have some basis in her past, which she didn’t remember.

Evangeline had had no choice but to accept her engagement, and she’d sworn to herself that she’d work hard, that she would be the best vicar’s wife who had ever lived, but she couldn’t quite believe she fit the role Miss Peabody had selected for her.

She went to the wardrobe, but she owned only a handful of clothes, so there was little to put away.  Three dresses—all gray with white collars and cuffs.  A nightgown.  Underclothes.  A wool cloak for winter.  Winter boots too.

And one very pretty day dress that she’d saved for years to buy.  It was a fetching violet shade that highlighted the blond of her hair and the deep sapphire of her eyes.  When she wore it, she felt she was someone other than a boring spinster and schoolteacher.

She took a last look at the meager pile, having to admit that—with her marrying a vicar—it was probably all she’d ever possess.  Somehow, she didn’t imagine there would be money in the household budget for frivolities such as stylish gowns.

Finished with her chore, she marched out, ready for an adventure.  Such an ornate residence would have a music room filled with instruments, and she was eager to locate it.

She roamed about, poking her nose into deserted galleries and salons.  It was late afternoon, and the house was very quiet, the servants likely in the kitchen and having tea.  So it came as a huge surprise when a woman’s sultry laughter drifted by, when the low rumble of a man’s voice answered the woman.

Evangeline slowed and began to tiptoe, worried over who it might be.  Was it Lord Run?  What would it mean if he was suddenly on the premises?  Could she remain a guest at Fox Run until her wedding?

Oh, she hoped so!  She’d only just arrived.  She would hate to have to depart so soon.

She found the pair at the end of the hall in what had to be the house’s most ostentatious suite, decorated with mahogany furniture, maroon drapes and rugs.  Every item bespoke comfort, wealth, and pleasure.  Evangeline neared and peeked through the crack in the door.

They were in the sitting room, the man lounged in a chair, the woman—very beautiful, very exotic—prancing about in front of him.  With fiery auburn hair and big green eyes, she was tugging the combs from her hair, letting it fall down her back in a curly wave.

She was about Evangeline’s same height of five feet five inches and probably Evangeline’s same age of twenty-five, but the similarities stopped there.

She was wearing a lush emerald gown that hugged her voluptuous figure, and she was glamorous and confident in a manner Evangeline had always struggled not to be.

As to the man, he was incredibly handsome.  Broad shoulders, flat belly, dark hair, blue, blue eyes.  He had a face like an angel.  Or maybe a devil.  He hadn’t shaved, so his cheeks were stubbled, making him appear dashing and reckless and dangerous.

His skin was bronzed from the sun, and he was robust and vigorous.  Since he was seated, it was hard to guess his height, but Evangeline suspected he’d be very tall, six feet at least.  He was dressed in expensive clothes, black riding boots, tan trousers, a flowing white shirt that was open part way, providing a glimpse of his chest, and Evangeline’s innards tickled at the sight.

It was horrid to spy, but she’d never seen such a delicious male specimen and couldn’t look away.

“You want me,” the woman was saying.  “You know you do.  Admit it.”

“If I do or if I don’t, Florella, how can it matter?”

“Not matter!” the woman, Florella, huffed.  “This has been brewing between us for an entire year.  Why not get on with it?  We’ll both be happier once it’s over.”

“Doesn’t Bryce have an exclusive arrangement with you?  What’s he paying you for if not for your exclusivity?”

“He might be paying me to be his mistress,” she saucily retorted, “but he doesn’t own me, and he doesn’t pick my friends.  When he’s not around, he can’t dictate who I can entertain and who I can’t.”

Evangeline was so shocked to hear the word mistress that she could barely bite down a gasp of astonishment.  Living as she had at a girl’s boarding school, she’d never associated with loose or disreputable people.  If Florella was truly a mistress, then she qualified as being the most scandalous person Evangeline had ever encountered.

Florella was unbuttoning her dress, the fabric falling away to reveal a very shapely bosom.  The man watched, seeming bored, as if he regularly viewed naked flesh and was too jaded to be moved by it.

Florella’s sleeves were next, as she exposed a very frilly, very elaborate corset.

The man arched an arrogant brow.  “Bryce spends enough to keep you in very fine undergarments.”

“Yes, he does.  Lucky me.”  Florella grabbed her breasts, as if offering them to the man, and she grinned.  “Are you hungry?  Would you like a little nibble?”

“If I said yes”—the man shrugged—“how would I explain it to Bryce?  I’m too honest for my own good, and I’d feel compelled to tell him.”

“I’ll tell him myself.  You won’t have to.”

“He’s my friend,” the man insisted.

“So he won’t mind sharing.”

Florella hiked up skirt and petticoat and climbed onto his lap, straddling him so her bosom was directly in his face.  She was riffling her fingers through his hair, fussing with his shirt.  She leaned down and touched her lips to his in a brief kiss that thrilled Evangeline.

She observed all, riveted by a peculiar sort of excitement she didn’t understand.

She’d had very limited experiences with men in her life, had never had a beau, or even a close male acquaintance.  She’d been kissed several times, but that had been when she was an adolescent and allowed to attend the harvest fair.  She’d sneaked off with a few boys and had found the groping and pawing to be particularly stimulating, but much of the exhilaration was due to the danger involved.

If Miss Peabody had ever learned of the indiscretions, there was no predicting what might have happened.  Evangeline would likely have been expelled, and as she’d gotten older, she’d had the sense not to flirt.  So it had been years since she’d participated in a romantic interlude, and she’d never seen two adults kissing.

She’d always heard risqué stories about how adults behaved when they were alone, but she’d never expected to witness such antics.  Her rampant curiosity was one of her worst traits, she wasn’t about to creep away before she saw quite a bit more.

“Bryce won’t care,” Florella persisted, her lips brushing the man’s again.  “He’s very generous, and he likes me to be happy.”

“And you’d be happy if we were lovers?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

The man scoffed.  “If you think Bryce would be nonchalant about it, you’re mad.”

“If he’s upset by it, we can switch.  I’ll leave him, and you can have me instead.”

“Me!  I have no desire to support you.  I’d have to take out a loan merely to keep you in undergarments.”

“I have very expensive tastes.”

“Poor Bryce.  How does he afford you?”

“I’m worth it,” Florella claimed.

The entire moment was so erotically charged that Evangeline could scarcely breathe.  She felt as if she’d stumbled on an alien world she hadn’t known to exist.  She wanted to burst into the room, to question them about their relationship, their opinions on sin and morality.

How could they so flagrantly eschew decency and decorum?  How did they rationalize it?  How would they carry on later, when they were seated across from each other at the supper table?

Florella appeared frozen, as if waiting for something special to transpire, but the man wasn’t inclined to oblige her.  Ultimately, he said, “I’ll ask Bryce.  If he gives me permission, I’ll consider it.”

“Oh, you beast.  Didn’t you travel to the country to enjoy yourself?  If you’re going to be a stick in the mud, what’s the point?”

“The point is I won’t deceive a friend.”

“You men!” Florella snorted.  “As if you have any loyalty.”

“I have some, not a lot, but some.  I wouldn’t waste it on you.”

Florella began massaging her breasts, her crafty fingers circling round and round as if trying to mesmerize him.  The movement had Evangeline eager to touch her own breasts.  Her nipples were throbbing with an ache she’d never noted before.

Her skin was tingling, her ears ringing, and she was so fixated on the pair that a wild bull could have raced up and she would have noticed.

“Boo!” a man whispered from directly behind her.

“Ah!”

Evangeline yelped with fright and lurched away from him, and it pitched her into the room where the lovers were still together in their chair.

At her sudden arrival, they both stiffened with surprise, then Florella leapt to her feet, shoving her skirt down her legs.  She whipped away, showing Evangeline her back, yanking at her sleeves and bodice.

The man who’d snuck up on Evangeline was probably thirty, and he looked enough like her, with the same blond hair and blue eyes, to be a relative.  He snapped, “For God’s sakes, Florella, cover yourself.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Florella said.

“You’re such a whore,” the blond man declared, but without any rancor.  “I don’t know why I put up with you.”

As with the prior word mistress, Evangeline had never previously heard a person utter the word whore, and she was stunned to the core of her being.  What type of asylum had she entered, and what was she to do now?

“She wanted a tumble,” the dark-haired man explained, “but I thought I should check with you first to see if you’d mind.”

“Honestly, Florella,” the blond man scolded, “we’re all aware that he’s richer than me, but stop being a mercenary for two seconds, would you?”

“Sorry,” Florella said again.  She turned toward Evangeline, which meant they all three turned.

“What have we here?” the dark-haired man asked, still lounged in his chair as if nothing odd had occurred.

“The door was ajar.  She was peeking through the crack.”

“Well, she certainly got an eyeful.”

“I scared the devil out of her.”  The blond man approached and made a slight bow to Evangeline.  “I’m Bryce Blair.”  He waved dismissively at Florella.  “This is my good—and very disreputable—friend, Miss Florella Bernard.  And this”—he gestured to the man in the chair—“is Aaron Drake, Viscount Run.”

Evangeline’s heart sank.

Lord Run was the owner of the estate, her host, and cousin to Evangeline’s betrothed, Vicar Bosworth.  What was she supposed to say?  How could she justify her conduct?  What if he tattled to Vicar Bosworth?  Evangeline’s engagement would likely be over before it had begun.

“Hello,” she glumly mumbled.

“And you are…?” Lord Run inquired.

“Miss Evangeline Etherton.”  He gaped at her, clearly not recognizing her name, so she added, “I’m your houseguest.”

My houseguest?” Lord Run said.  “I don’t have a houseguest.”

“Yes…ah…the vicar’s mother, Widow Bosworth, arranged it with you.”

“That’s very curious.  I don’t remember her contacting me.”

The three of them were staring as if Evangeline had grown a second head, but Lord Run’s assessment was the most intense of all, his shrewd gaze probing for information and details that Evangeline had no idea how to supply.  She flashed a tepid smile, hoping to generate a hint of a smile in return, but he simply glared and pointed to her gray dress.

“Are you a nanny?  A governess?  What?”

There was no way to hide her identity.  She had to reveal herself.  He’d learn who she was soon enough.

“I’m the vicar’s fiancée.”

There was a shocked silence, then Mr. Blair asked, “Vicar Bosworth—as in Ignatius Bosworth?”

“Yes,” Evangeline said.

“He’s marrying?  Truly?” Mr. Blair persisted.

Miss Bernard chimed in with, “He’s marrying you?”

“Yes.”

Lord Run seemed the most bewildered by the news.  He studied her even more intensely.  Finally, he said, “You are engaged to Cousin Iggy?  Seriously?”

“Yes.”  It might have been the sole word Evangeline could speak.

There was another fraught silence, then the trio burst out laughing in loud, rude guffaws.

Evangeline had never been more mortified and didn’t know why they were so amused.  Was she an inappropriate bride for the vicar?  Was she too far beneath him?  Or was the vicar inspiring their hilarity?  Were they surprised by his betrothal?  Were they humored that he’d settled on Evangeline?  Why would they be?

Was Vicar Bosworth horrid?  Was Evangeline the only one who hadn’t been apprised?  What sort of mess had Miss Peabody orchestrated?

What’s so funny? she yearned to demand.

But instead, she spun and ran, their chortles following her down the hall.

Back To Top