Excerpt from "A Maiden to Remember"
Ellie Middleton has exactly one month to find a husband. If she doesn’t, her father will betroth her to a vile man. Although her heart still belongs to the soldier who died in the war, she is willing to enter a loveless marriage. Out of options, Ellie does the unthinkable when she runs into her brother’s friend, Vincent Wallace, the Earl of Trenton, and boldly makes him a proposal of marriage in name only. Will the rogue accept the bargain she’s offered?
Vincent Wallace has no desire to marry and tie himself to one woman. However, he doesn’t like the idea of Ellie settling for just anyone, either. He can’t get her off his mind, and he desires her more than any women he’s ever known. But when he is threatened to stay away from Ellie or die, Vincent doesn’t know whether to release her and allow her to be happy or fight for the woman he has fallen in love with.
“I have heard that rumor, but I might have a solution for you.”
She went silent as she guided the horse to a small meadow and stopped in the shade of a large oak tree. She sighed, hooked the reins over the rail, and turned toward him. Vincent wasn’t certain he liked the look in her mischievous eyes.
“Miss Middleton, I find myself anxious to hear what you have to say.”
“What I suggest will not only help you and your sisters, but it will be of great assistance for me, as well.”
He nodded, suspecting there was a hidden meaning in all of this. “Continue.”
She inhaled deeply, and as she released the air, her shoulders relaxed just a bit. “You are in need of funds to run your estate and to assist your sisters in obtaining a dowry. I can give that to you on one condition.” She swallowed noisily. “I need you to become my husband, but in name only.”
A small breeze blew against his face, and he thought something had lodged in his ear. He couldn’t possibly have heard her correctly. “Beg pardon? Did you say you want me to become your husband?”
He waited for her to laugh or make some snide remark over what he thought he’d heard. Instead, she lifted her chin stubbornly and nodded.
“Yes, that’s what I offer.”
Confusion filled his head, and he leaned back, giving him more room to breathe. But her flowery scent billowed around him, dazing his mind momentarily. Marriage?
“Surely you jest, Miss Middleton.”
“It’s not a joke, my lord. I’m quite serious.”
“Why would you want to marry me? I’m certain you’ve heard the rumors about my lifestyle.”
“Indeed I have.” She lifted her chin a notch higher and seemed to take a subtle breath. “However, I’m willing to overlook that. You need something which I have, and in return, I need you to marry me.”
An indecent thought crossed his mind, and he hitched a breath. “Miss Middleton, are you perhaps… in the motherly way?”
A blush exploded across her face as she shook her head. “Absolutely not! How could you even think such a thing?”
Vincent shrugged. “Usually when women are desperate to marry, they are in that type of delicate condition.”
“Well, I assure you, I’m not in that condition. Far from it, in fact.” She fidgeted in her seat and twisted her hands in her lap. “Lord Trenton, the truth is, my father is pushing me to marry within the month, and if I’m not wed, he will sign a marriage contract with my stepmother’s nephew, Lord Stone.” Her voice tightened, so she cleared her throat. “Needless to say, I’ll do anything to keep from marrying him, even sink low enough to ask a rogue to become my husband.”
Sink low enough? Vincent was certain she was being rude, but he wouldn’t comment on it yet. “And you know no other man to ask to be your husband?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t spent a lot of time in social circles since my fiancé died.”
Dominic had mentioned this during their ride, but Vincent wasn’t sure he believed it. Why would a beautiful, unmarried woman pine after a dead man for three whole years?
Nevertheless, Vincent couldn’t accept her offer, as tempting as it was.
“I’m sorry for your plight, but I must deny your request. I enjoy being a rogue, and so I’m not likely to settle down with just one woman.”
She blinked quickly. Did he detect tears in her eyes? Impossible.
“I have thought about that, as well,” she said softly. “I shall give you leniency for your continued lifestyle as long as you promise to do it discreetly. And you must allow me to be my own woman, and let me do whatever I wish—as long as it’s discreetly, of course.”
“You… you want to have affairs behind my back?”
Her face reddened again. “Absolutely not!” She licked her lips. “All I wish is to be allowed to continue my painting and to visit my father’s estate whenever I like.”
For some reason, he didn’t believe her. Why would any woman say such a thing? They wanted their husbands to be faithful, yet Ellie was being contradictory. Was there something else that she wasn’t telling him?
“Let me get this straight.” He adjusted himself in his seat. “You will allow me to continue my affairs, while I allow you to run the household as you please, and paint to your heart’s content?”
He studied her pretty face. She appeared to be quite serious, but he still felt there was something else she wasn’t telling him. “Miss Middleton, does your brother know what you want to do? And what about your father? Does he know?”
She squared her shoulders. “They don’t, and I would appreciate it if you would keep this a secret and not tell them, or anyone, for that matter.”
“So you’re saying that you want me to pretend to be in love with you, just as you’ll pretend to be in love with me, to convince your family that we should wed?”
She lowered her attention to her hands again. “Yes, I suppose that is what we will have to do to make it believable.”
By the way she squirmed slightly in her seat, he could tell how uncomfortable this subject made her. It made him squeamish, as well. If she had the courage to propose to him, Vincent was certain she would have the courage to do other things as well. Although he should refuse her again, he wanted to tease a little first. After all, he hadn’t been classified as a rogue by mistake.
Vincent glanced toward the house, but they were far enough away that his sisters wouldn’t see what he was about to do. He tried not to let the grin of excitement show on his face.
“Miss Middleton, what you say does have merit. However, I think we would have to be very convincing in order for your father to agree.”
Her gaze snapped up. Panic shown on her face. “What… do you mean?”
Carefully, to not surprise her, he brought up his hand and gently cupped the side of her face. She stiffened, but she didn’t pull away.
“I think we need to practice first. Don’t you agree?”
“P-practice what, exactly?” Her voice shook.
“Practice staring into each other’s eyes as if we are so in love that we forget about the rest of the world. I think we need to also practice the art of kissing.”
She gulped down a hard swallow. “Art of kissing?”
“Yes indeed. Didn’t you know kissing is considered an art form?”
“It is.” He scooted closer. “Shall I teach you, my sweet lady?”
Beneath his palm, her skin grew hot, and he felt the throbbing of her heartbeat. Her breaths came faster, causing her lovely bosom to rise and fall quickly. Just seeing, and feeling, her emotions jumping inside her made him restless.
One of the things he enjoyed about seducing a woman was the first kiss. He cherished the little whimpering sounds they made as he kissed them, as well as feeling their bodies tremble from his gentle touch.
Vincent leaned his face closer to hers until her hot breath blew across his face. “Will you allow me to demonstrate the art of kissing, my precious?”
When her tongue sneaked out of her mouth and slid across her lips, his heartbeat jumped. She was going to let him, and he almost couldn’t stand the wait.
“I-I suppose… if it’s going to help us make it more believable.”
“I assure you, it will.” He slid his fingers along her jaw and tilted her face, positioning it for his takeover. Slowly, he guided his touch down her neck. She closed her eyes, and her lips parted.
As he placed his mouth over hers, he took things slowly. She sat very stiff, but the longer he moved his lips across hers, the more her body relaxed. Thunder pounded in his ears from the excitement of it all, but he didn’t want to frighten her.
He withdrew, only enough to look into her eyes. They were closed, but slowly flickered open. Her mesmerizing coffee-colored gaze searched his. He couldn’t see passion laced in her eyes yet, and he promised himself he would make her feel the excitement. Her curious stare told him she wanted more.
So, he would give it to her.
He wrapped his arms loosely around her as he captured her mouth again. Gradually, her body softened enough to press against him. Finally, she was willing and would allow him to continue. Being very gentle, he nipped at her bottom lip, and when her mouth opened wider, he slid his tongue inside. A tight sigh squeaked from her throat as she melted against him.
He tightened her in his embrace, holding her so very close to his body. Using his tongue, he tried to teach her how to kiss, and it seemed she was eager to learn. She hesitantly copied his movements, but within seconds, her actions became bolder. Excitement grew inside him, and now it was him who wanted more.
A throaty moan escaped her. His pulse beat faster, and he couldn’t hold back the passion any longer. The kiss turned heated, and he yearned to touch her in a more personal way. Hoping not to upset her, he slowly slid his hand over her shoulder to rest on her bare neck. The silky smoothness of her skin felt wonderful beneath his fingers. The beat of her heart matched the same quick rhythm as his.
Vincent inched his palm down from her neck to her heaving bosom, but just as he neared the very thing he was after, she hitched a breath and pushed him away.
Dejected, Vincent kept calm instead of yanking her back into his arms as he wanted. What could have possibly made her interrupt his lessons? She seemed to be enjoying herself just as he was.
“Forgive me, but… I’m not ready for that.” She took deep breaths as her attention flitted around them.
“I understand,” he said, even if he didn’t. “I won’t rush you.”
She licked her lips and adjusted herself in the seat as her trembling hands took hold of the reins, but she didn’t urge the horse forward. Instead, she sat stiff and proper as she stared at the animal.
He really didn’t know what else to say. The mood was broken, and he doubted he’d get it back. Perhaps the only thing to do now was let her down nice and easy while rejecting her proposal.
“So, Lord Trenton, are we in agreement, then?”
Her voice wobbled with uncertainty. Vincent really felt like a jackanapes for denying her, but he just couldn’t go through with it. Even thinking about marriage made him feel suffocated. It was almost certain she would learn that he was responsible for her fiancé’s death, and she would hate him.
He would have to find a different way to come up with the funds for his sisters’ dowries.
Sighing, he shook his head. “As much as your offer sounds very tempting and would help out my sisters tremendously, I cannot accept your deal. I’m not the marrying kind of man, and I will never be.”
Ellie’s expression changed to confused, and then to hurt, and finally to anger. Her eyes darkened as she scowled.
“You knew all this time that you wouldn’t accept? Yet you continued to kiss me… that way?”
He lifted one shoulder. “Pretty much, yes.”
“Oh!” She slapped his chest. “You are the cruelest man I’ve ever met. I cannot believe I wanted your help. Indeed, I must have gone insane for a moment. Now get out of my buggy.” She pointed toward the road. “And I never want to see you again.”
Perhaps he deserved her anger. But it was a passionate kiss, nonetheless. For certain, he would think about her for quite a while, wondering if she would ever give him a second chance.