BlurbOnly a madman makes a promise in the heat of passion...
During a midnight tryst in a moonlit garden, Nicolas Needham fell in love—only to walk away. As a younger son with few connections, his pride demanded that he better his circumstances before paying his suit to Lady Mariah. When Nicolas is finally given the opportunity he needs to advance—by negotiating a contract of matrimony on his employer’s behalf—he is shocked to learn that the intended bride is the same woman to whom he once pledged himself.
And only a fool believes him....
Mariah Morehaven has lived a quiet, almost reclusive life in the country. While she accepts that marriage is her unavoidable destiny, as a baroness in her own right, and heir to one of the oldest and land-rich estates in England, she fears becoming the target of fortune hunters. After entrusting her cousin, Lydia, to help her find a suitable match, Mariah is devastated to discover that the man sent to negotiate for her hand is the very same who broke her heart.
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ExcerptNICK FOUND HER on one of the private terraces overlooking the gardens. Alone. Thank God. Dressed in her ivory gown and drenched in soft moonlight, she resembled nothing so much as an ethereal being leaning wistfully over the balustrade.
"Lady Mariah?" he called out softly.
She turned to face him with a look of surprise. "Mr. Needham?"
"I thought to find you with Rochford."
"Then you were mistaken."
"Mistaken?" He frowned. "I don't believe I mistook his interest in you."
She released a bitter laugh. "His interest is in my estate, perhaps. In my dowry, most certainly. But in me? I assure you not, Mr. Needham."
"Then he is a fool."
"No. We are simply from different worlds. That one is his," she inclined her head to the door, "and this one is mine."
"Are you not enjoying yourself?"
"To be honest, I feel completely out of my element without Lydia. All too much like a sheep in a cow pasture."
"You don't look like a sheep," he said. "A sprite perhaps, but never a sheep."
"A sprite?" She laughed. "You told me you weren't given to false flattery, Mr. Needham."
His grin instantly faded. "There's nothing false in my words, Mariah." Her name slipped all too easily over his tongue. "You have no idea how lovely you are tonight."
Unable to help himself, he reached out to stroke the curls that lay over her pale shoulder. His gaze followed the cascade of golden-brown locks to where the ends rested just above her milky-white breasts. "In the morning sunshine, I thought you resembled a wood nymph, but by moonlight, you are nothing short of angelic. You should always be out of doors, Mariah."
"It's where I prefer to be," she said. "It's where I feel most alive—walking, riding, tending the garden. I've always despised being stuck inside, but now that's where I spend most of my waking hours. My only escape is at night when I sit on my own terrace or walk in the gardens."
"Alone?" he asked, his gaze searching hers. Was he mistaken about her? Did she perhaps have a secret lover?
"Yes," she whispered softly. "Very much . . . alone."
She suddenly looked so forlorn, making him ache for what he couldn't have. It was all he could do not to pull her into his arms.
"It would not be so if you were you to marry . . ." The words were out before he could take them back.
"To whom? Someone like Lord Rochford?" she asked, searching his eyes.
"A woman in your position may have her pick of nearly any eligible bachelor in the realm."
She released a derisive laugh. "And I would still be very much alone. I don't seek that kind of marriage, Mr. Needham. 'Tis too beautiful a night to speak of such unpleasant things as marriage." She tilted her face up toward the heavens, exposing the full column of her beautiful neck. "Do you ever stargaze? Or is such an activity too frivolous for a man of your serious temperament?"
"Yes. As a matter of fact, I have always loved astronomy."
"I have never learned to identify the constellations, but the myths fascinate me. When you look up there tonight, what do you see?"
"The moon is too bright to see much," he said. "The best time to view stars is during the new moon."
"Can you find Cassiopeia for me?"
"She doesn't emerge in the heavens until autumn, but Ursa Major is best viewed in spring. It's also the easiest to recognize. Do you know the myth?"
"It is the story of Callisto, is it not?"
"Yes. Zeus was smitten by her, and Hera, his jealous wife, transformed Callisto into a bear. While she was in animal form, her son Arcas was going to shoot her, but Zeus intervened and turned Arcas into a bear as well. He then placed mother and son permanently in the heavens."
"It seems so unfair that Callisto was punished merely for attracting the attention of Zeus, but then again, maybe she's happier lighting up the nighttime sky than worrying about unwanted propositions from powerful men."
"Unwanted propositions?" Her words rang a peal in his ears. "Did Rochford importune you?"
"No. He did not, but he hinted at a proposal of marriage."
"Earlier this evening."
"How did you answer him?"
"I didn't. Please, Mr. Needham. I don't wish to talk about it. Why were you looking for me? Did you receive any news from Lord Marcus?"
"Yes. He anticipates he and Miss Trent will arrive late tonight."
"What has detained him for so long?"
"He didn't elaborate. He only said it was a matter of urgency." She shivered. "You are cold." He immediately stripped off his coat and laid it over her shoulders.
Her eyes met his. "Thank you, Mr. Needham."
"Nicolas," he said. "Or Nick would be even better."
"Nick," she repeated with a soft smile. "I like the sound of it. It suits you."
"And why is that?"
"It's a no-nonsense kind of name, isn't it? You don't seem to care for their disingenuous ways any more than I do. Indeed, you are the only one here with whom I am at ease. It's hard to believe we met only a few short days ago. I feel as if I have known you so very much longer."
"Perhaps it's just the wine?" he suggested.
"No," she murmured, leaning toward him, close enough for him to catch a teasing hint of lilacs. She licked her lips. The gesture drew his gaze to her luscious rose-colored mouth. He couldn't help wondering if her lips were as sweet and petal soft as they looked. "It has nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with the man."
Her tone and demeanor were warm and inviting, and innocently seductive. He was surely courting danger to be alone with her any longer. "We should go back inside and join them at cards," he said.
"Must we?" she asked, soft and pleading.
"Yes, we must," he replied resolutely. He'd come looking for her to protect her from Rochford, but who would protect her from him? "If you don't wish to join them at cards, you could always make an excuse to retire early to your chamber."
"But I won't be able to sleep. I'm far too restless. What about you? Do you intend to wait for Lord Marcus and Lydia?"
"Then I will wait with you," she said. "That is . . . if you would care for some company."
"No," he said. "It wouldn't be appropriate for us to be together. Indeed, if we stay out here much longer, we will surely become an object of speculation."
"Would that be so terrible?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" He was half afraid of her answer.
"If my reputation were tarnished, perhaps I would not then be troubled by any more unwanted suitors."
"You are quite mistaken in me if you think I would do such a thing," he replied tersely.
She had no idea the torture she was putting him through. What she'd just implied, that she was willing to be compromised, was pushing him perilously close to the breaking point. He was an honorable man, but a man nevertheless—made of flesh and blood.
"I'm sorry." She bit her lip. "It was a foolish thing to say. But I am no one. Why would anyone bother themselves with me?"
"You don't understand how it is," he said. "This world is full of malicious people, Mariah. To those who live meaningless lives, spreading gossip and fomenting scandal is the ultimate in entertainment."
"I have nothing in common with such people," she said. "I hate falseness and malice. I'm very sorry I came here."
"Are you?" he asked softly. "I'm not. If you hadn't come, I never would have had the delight of getting to know you, and that would have been a tragedy for me."
"But what does it matter? It's unlikely that we'll ever see each other again after tomorrow."
His gaze narrowed. "After tomorrow?"
"Yes. In the morning, I intend to pack my belongings. I'm returning to Morehaven."
"Yes. I am needed at home."
“But you can't leave so soon," he protested. "I promised to teach you about cricket. I could never break my word to a lady. I have my reputation to protect."
His effort at levity only seemed to annoy her. “Your reputation?" She gave a snort of indignation. "Is that all that matters to you, Mr. Needham? What others think?"
"Not at all," he replied. "In truth, most of them can go to the devil for all I care."
"Then why are you afraid to be alone with me?" she asked softly.
"I'm only trying to protect you from those who live to destroy others," he answered.
His chest squeezed as her gaze grew misty. "I don't belong here. Don't you understand? Can you even imagine how it feels to be sought out only because you have property and a fortune? How will I ever know if someone actually cares for me?"
Nick stifled a groan. The anguish in her beautiful blue-green eyes unraveled his last threads of self-restraint. He drew her into his arms, knowing he was making a mistake, maybe the biggest of his life, but the kiss was his fate. It was as inevitable as the rising sun and as unstoppable as the ocean tide.
"How will you know?" He moved in slowly, deliberately, until their faces were mere inches apart, until the sweet sough of her breath caressed his face. He couldn't hold himself back now if his next breath depended on it. "This is how."
Cupping her face with both hands, he finally claimed the soft, sweet lips that had tormented him since he'd seen her in Lady Russell's garden. Her kiss was the tenderest torture. Although unschooled, her lips were indescribably sweet. He wanted to lose himself in the drugging pleasure of them forever. He resisted the urge to probe with his tongue, knowing if he took this any further, he'd never be able to pull away, and he had to. He couldn't let it go on. One long and lingering kiss was all he would allow himself . . . because anything more could never be enough.
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About The AuthorVictoria Vane is a selling author of of smart and sexy contemporary romance and an award-winning author of historical romance. Her books have received many accolades to include the 2016 Red Carpet Award for Jewel of the East, 2014 RONE Award for Treacherous Temptations as well as Library Journal Best E-Book romance of 2012 for The Devil DeVere series.
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