Excerpt from A Most Unsuitable Man
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"If anyone ever needed any confirmation that Jo Beverley is in a class by herself, A Most Unsuitable Man is the proof." Read the rest of this 5 hearts review here.
Having risen from nowhere, heiress Damaris Myddleton believes she must purchase the highest title available to prove that she belongs in her new world. But what if she falls in love with a penniless adventurer with a very shady background?
(The book opens with a reprise of the scene in Winter Fire where the dowager Marchioness of Ashart turns up, but told from Damaris's point of view. I've omitted that here, and we start immediately afterward. It is not necessary to have read WINTER FIRE before reading A Most Unsuitable Man, but it certainly wouldn't hurt, and it's still available. If your bookstore doesn't have it in stock, they can order it for you without charge, or you can buy it on line.)
Damaris came to her swimming senses to realize that she was being carried upstairs. Carried by Fitzroger. She couldn't find the will to protest, for behind her she heard chatter and laughter.
Oh, God. She’d lost Ashart! But worse than that, they were all laughing at her. She'd mortified herself in front of the people she'd tried so hard to impress, among whom she’d hoped to belong. Now they were laughing at her -- at that silly Miss Myddleton who thought her wealth could buy her a place among them. Miss Myddleton, daughter and heiress of a man who’d been little better than a pirate, after all.
She was placed on her bed and could hear her maid, Maisie, exclaiming and questioning. She kept her eyes closed as if that might change everything, make everything right. Someone raised her and put a glass to her lips. She recognized the smell. Laudanum. She hated opium and its lingering effects, but she swallowed it gratefully. She only wished it had the power to wipe away the past hour and let her have the time over again.
The curtains were drawn around the bed. Voices became dim whispers. As she waited for the drug to take effect, Damaris's mind whirled around and around disaster.
She could not bear to face any of those people again.
Who was she, after all? For the first twenty years of her life she'd known no finer house than Birch House, Worksop. It was an adequate house for a gentleman physician like her grandfather, but nothing compared to Rothgar Abbey or even Ashart's decrepit seat, Cheynings.
Until a year ago, in fact, she’d lived in genteel poverty, for within months of marrying her mother, her father had gone adventuring and the little he'd sent home had not allowed for luxuries. Or so Damaris had been told. She and her mother had made all their own clothes and mended them again and again. Food had been the simplest, much of it grown in their garden. They’d had servants, but clumsy young ones, because as soon as they were trained, they left for higher wages.
But upon her mother’s death, Damaris had learned the truth. Her father had become extremely wealthy, and he’d left nearly all his fortune to her. He had even arranged for a remarkable guardian if both he and her mother died while she was young. That guardian was Lord Henry Malloren, the elderly uncle of the great Marquess of Rothgar.
That was why Damaris was at Rothgar Abbey. Lord Henry and his wife had wanted to attend and they’d had no choice but to bring their unwelcome responsibility – Damaris – with them.
Damaris had been delighted to escape Lord Henry’s dull home and to have an opportunity to learn more about the glittering aristocratic world which would soon be her own when she became Marchioness of Ashart.
How had she ever thought to reach so high?
She should have known that a person doesn’t change because of fine clothes and magnificent jewels. Covering a dung heap with silk, they called in it Worksop.
She didn't truly belong here, and she couldn’t bear to face their sniggering tomorrow. As darkness gathered in her mind, she knew she would have to leave.
At crack of dawn a coach sped away from Rothgar Abbey as fast as the overnight snow would allow. Inside, Damaris prayed that they’d not be caught in a drift. Briggs, her guardian’s coachman, had dourly predicted that they’d not get far, and if they did it would snow again and stop the journey, but she’d poured out guineas until he agreed.
Being one of the richest women in England had to be useful for something.
What if she was pursued? The crunch of her coach wheels and the pounding of the horses' hooves blocked any sound of pursuit -- or perhaps she was deafened by the pounding of her own frantic heart.
"It'll come to disaster, I know it will," her maid, Maisie, prophesied, for perhaps the twentieth time. Maisie was plump, plain, and generally merry, but today every line of her round face curved downward. "How're we going to get all the way back home without being caught, Miss?"
Damaris would scream at her except that Maisie could be the only friend she had left in the world. "I told you. We only need to reach the London road and buy tickets north. I'm of age. I can go where I want. The Mallorens can't drag me off a public stage."
Maisie's grim silence said I wish I were sure of that.
Damaris felt the same doubt. The Mallorens seemed to be a law unto themselves, and her guardian, Lord Henry, was a tyrant. Perhaps they wouldn’t care. Perhaps they’d be glad to see the back of her.
The coach swayed as it turned out of the park of the Abbey. It was probably irrational, but she felt relief at no longer being on Malloren property.
She began to look ahead. She would switch to a public coach at Farnham, then in London buy tickets north. Once back at Birch House…. Her vision ended there. She had no idea what she’d do, then. She’d probably be back in poverty because her father’s will allowed her guardian to withhold her money if she didn’t live where he said and do as she was told. She would hate it, but she could survive with little. And it would only be until she was twenty-four-
Movement in the corner of her eye whirled her to her right.
A rider thundered by her window. Fine horse. Fine rider. Wild blond hair flying in the wind.
He cut off her coach. It shuddered to a halt and the coachman said, "Trouble, sir?"
The reply came in that crisp, cool voice that had tormented her for days. "I need a word with Miss Myddleton."
Maisie moaned. Damaris wanted to. Instead of means of escape, the coach now felt like a trap.
Fitzroger rode to the window and looked in. He was always plainly dressed, but now her looked the very picture of a vagabond. His blond hair curled loose about his shoulders, his shirt lay open at the neck, and he wore no waistcoat beneath his plain blue jacket. He was as good as undressed!
His ice blue eyes seemed... what? Exasperated? What right did Ashart's penniless friend have to be exasperated with her?
Damaris let down the window, but only to lean out and call, "Drive on, Briggs!" Cold air cut at her. Briggs, plague take him, didn't obey.
Fitzroger grasped the edge of the window frame with his bare hand. He couldn't hold back the coach by brute force, but that commanding hand unnerved her, preventing her from raising the glass between them.
Bare hand. Bare neck. Bare head.
She hoped he froze to death. "What do you want, sir?"
"But a moment of your time, Miss Myddleton."
He released the coach and swung off the horse, calling for the groom to come down and take the horse. That snapped Damaris back to action. She leaned out further and yelled, "Drive on, you spineless varlet!"
She could have saved her frozen breath. Despite the extortionate bribe she'd paid him, Briggs was abandoning her at the first challenge. If she knew how to drive, she'd climb up on the box and take the reins herself.
The wide-eyed young groom, in his frieze coat, gloves, and hat appeared outside the window and took the horse's reins. Fitzroger opened the door smiling -- but at Maisie, not Damaris. "Return to the house behind the groom. I'll bring your mistress back shortly."
"No, he won't. Maisie, do not dare to obey him!"
Maisie, the traitor, scrambled toward the door. Damaris grabbed her skirt to stop her. Fitzroger chopped sharply at her hand, shocking it open, and pulled Maisie free.
Damaris gaped at him, her hand still tingling. "How dare you!"
She reached for the door to slam it, but the man leaped into the coach then closed it himself before she could push him out again. He took the opposite seat and addressed the groom. "Take the maid up to the house, and keep quiet about this."
Pure fury blazed and she reached for the holstered pistol by her seat. She knew nothing of guns, but surely one had only to point them and pull the trigger. A strong hand closed over hers. He said nothing, but she was suddenly unable to move, frozen by his bare hand controlling hers and his cool, steady eyes.
She pulled free and sat back, tucking her hands back in her muff and directing her eyes to a spot behind his head. "Whatever you have to say, Mr. Fitzroger, say it and be gone."
He leaned out of the window. "Walk the horses, coachman, and you might as well turn them."
Back toward the house. She wouldn't return -- she couldn’t -- but right now she didn't see how to prevent it. Tears choked her but she swallowed them. It would be the final straw to cry.
He raised the window, cutting off the bitter winter air, but trapping her in this enclosed space with him. Their legs could hardly avoid contact and she could almost feel his heat.
"You don't really want to run away, you know."
She responded to that with silence.
“I'm impressed that you persuaded Lord Henry's servants to carry you away. How did you manage that?"
"Guineas," she said flatly, "which I have in abundance, and you, sir, significantly lack."
"Whereas I have understanding of this world in abundance, which you, Miss Myddleton, significantly lack."
She fired a look at him. "Then you understand that I am ruined."
"No, but this mad flight might do it."
She looked away again, out at the bleak scene. "I won't be here to find out."
But how did she escape? Fitzroger looked impervious to reason or tears. Despite his obvious poverty, she didn’t think he could be bribed.
"You have a fighting spirit," he said, "but a fighter needs to understand the terrain. Running away won't help because you'll have to meet all those people again one day. Unless you intend to live like a hermit."
When in doubt, attack. "It's Ashart who should be ashamed. He was supposed to marry me. You know he was."
"He was supposed to marry your money."
It stung like a whip, but she raised her chin. "A fair bargain. My wealth for his title. He'll not survive without it."
"A penny saved is a penny earned."
She let out a bitter laugh. "He's planning economy? Ashart? He of the diamond buttons and the splendid horses?"
"A point, I grant you, but what's done is done. It is your future that matters now."
She suddenly wondered if she saw the reason for this interference. Fitzroger was a mystery to her, but he was clearly poor. He survived as unpaid companion to Ashart.
"I'll not trade my fortune for less, sir, if that is your plan."
If it stung him back, he hid it well. "I wouldn't aspire so far above my station. Think of me as Sir Galahad, Miss Myddleton, riding to the maiden's rescue from pure and noble motives."
"I don't need rescue, only to be allowed to go on my way."
He looked as if he might shake her, but then he relaxed, stretching out his long legs so they brushed her wide skirts. She almost shifted away but stopped herself in time.
"I embarrassed myself once," he said. "I was fifteen, a freshly-minted ensign, proud of my uniform but certain that everyone knew I was a lad pretending to be a soldier. I was hurrying across the busy barracks square one day and stepped back to make way for one of the officers' wives. Alas, I hooked up the skirts of another with my sword. It tangled with some ribbon or some such and I couldn't pull it free, so I turned, which made matters worse. Her legs were exposed up beyond the knees and she was shrieking at me to stop. I was sweating, and desperate. I tried to back away. Something ripped.... I was certain that no one would ever forget it. I'd have taken ship to the Indies if I could. But after some teasing, it ceased to matter."
She could imagine all too well and felt some sympathy, but said, "It's hardly the same."
"True. My misfortune was pure accident whereas yours is to some extent willful. You wanted the prize you'd picked out, and if I hadn't stopped you yesterday-"
"Stopped me! I still have the bruises!" But the whole horrible event rushed back to her as if it were happening right then. She leaned forward in desperation, pulling her hands from her muff to beg. "Please let me go. Please! I'm going to my old home. I'll be safe."
He took her hands. She tried to tug free but strength seemed to have deserted her, and her vision was blurred by tears.
"Flee and your bad behavior will be fixed in people's minds. Return, seem in good spirits, and everyone will doubt their own memory of events."
She blinked, trying to read truth or error in his face. "Every detail must be etched in their minds."
"Every detail is etched in yours, as my sword misadventure was etched in mine. In the minds of others, it's part of a tumult of fascinating drama, and for the most part you were the injured party. We can return you to that, to the point where people sympathized."
She snatched her hands free. "With a pitiable creature, jilted because all her jewels and riches couldn't compensate for a plain face, awkward manners, and inferior birth!"
She froze, unable to believe that she'd just exposed her secret shame to this man, then covered her face with a hand.
He swung over to sit beside her and gently tugged her hand down. "Begging for compliments, Miss Myddleton?"
Damaris had to look at him, but she could hardly think for his body suddenly close in the confinement of a coach seat. She'd lived most of her life in a world without men, without their effect at close quarters. Now, this man pressed against her at leg and arm, and his strong, warm hand enfolded hers.
"You can't compete with Genova Smith in beauty," he said. "Few can. But plain, no. And I've seen nothing amiss with your manners except when strain over Ashart rode you. Come back with me. I promise to stand by you, to make sure everything turns out as you would wish."
Tone as much as words shivered along her nerves, weakening her will. Was it possible?
"How can I? What will I have to do?"
"Face them and smile."
Damaris’s mouth dried, but she recognized the second chance she’d prayed for in the night. She wasn’t sure it was possible, but she had to take it if only to prove to herself that she wasn’t a coward as well as a fool.
Logic didn't defeat fear, however, and she had to fight a tight throat to speak. "Very well, I'll return and put on a glad face. But I hold you to your promise. You will stand by me?"
His smile was remarkably sweet. "I will."
He had to have an eye on her fortune -- no other reason explained his apparent kindness. "Before you go any further, Mr. Fitzroger, please understand that while I appreciate your help, I will never, ever offer you my hand and fortune."
"Damaris, not every man who does you a service will be after your money."
Despite her irritation at the way he’d dogged her over the past days, preventing her from coming between Ashart and Miss Smith, she’d not been blind to his charm. She often found herself enjoying his company. She wished he’d at least be honest now.
"Are you claiming to have no desire to marry riches? I cannot believe that."
He shrugged. "I'd take your fortune if you offered it, but you won't do anything so foolish, will you?"
"Then we know where we stand.”
How could he tie her in knots by agreeing with her?
“Lord Henry is taking you to London for the winter season, isn't he? You'll have your pick of the titled blooms there. A duke, even.” I twinkle lit his eyes. “Think of it. As a duchess, you'll outrank Genova, Marchioness of Ashart."
He seemed to see right into her petty soul, but she couldn't deny the appeal of that. That list of the needy, titled gentlemen had included a duke -- the Duke of Bridgewater.
"What are you plotting now?" he asked in lazy amusement. "You make me nervous."
"I wish that were true."
"Any sensible man gets nervous when confronted with an inexperienced lady weaving plots."
"Inexperienced?" she objected, but in truth she could hardly claim otherwise.
"Very. Are you experienced enough, for example, to choose your husband wisely?"
"Are you offering to guide me?" she asked with a disbelieving smile.
At that moment, perhaps from some reaction of his, she recognized that she'd spoken flirtatiously. She would have said that she didn't know how to flirt, but she was doing so and it shook her.
If she was going to flirt, it should never be with this man. If she'd asked her trustees to draw up a list of the least suitable men she might meet in polite society, Octavius Fitzroger would have been near the top of it.
He was penniless, without employment, and she'd heard rumors at Rothgar Abbey about some dark scandal in his past. She'd been too intent on pursuing Ashart to find out more, but she knew some of the guests were surprised, even shocked, that he’d been allowed in the house.
All the same, when he took her hand and raised it to his lips, when he murmured, "I could be your guide in many things..." Damaris's grasp on common sense faltered.
He's kissing your hand, nothing more, she told her misty mind, but it didn't help. Her heart pounded and moisture gathered in her mouth, forcing her to swallow or drool. When he leaned closer she recovered enough to put a hand on his chest. "No, sir!"
"Are you sure?"
No. His body felt like fire beneath her palm, for only his shirt covered his hard chest. If she slid her hand higher, her fingers would touch naked skin at the base of his throat....
"Practice," he murmured, "leads to perfection."
"Practice?" she squeaked. "At what?"
"Flirtation." He raised a hand and brushed his knuckles down her slack jaw. "If you're happily flirting with me, no one will be able to believe that you're still pining for Ashart, will they?"
"Why would I ever choose you over him?" The question was rude, but the desperate truth.
His eyes danced with wickedness. "For Christmastide amusement. You're a wealthy young woman who is soon going to London to marry well, but for the moment, you amuse yourself with me."
They were fixed in place, he stroking her jaw, she holding him off. It created a strange illusion of being within a magical circle, one she didn't want to break.
"Very well," she said, but clung to reason. She pushed at his chest and said, "There's no need to embrace here."
Her push achieved nothing but to press her hand harder against his heat and make breathing more difficult.
"No kiss as a reward, fair lady?" His fingers brushed between the fur lining of her hood and the skin of her neck. "Chinchilla," he murmured, making the word sound like a whisper of sin.
Oh, he was wicked, and she should push harder, even scream for help, but she wanted his kiss. Her mouth tingled for it.
"Just a kiss," he said softly. "Nothing more, I promise."
He dislodged her hand that was still feebly trying to hold him off and took her into his arms. She couldn't remember ever being touched like this before, with such tender power.
He caught any protest in a kiss.
She was powerless, but his embrace felt not at all forceful, except as a force of nature. Thought evaporated, and Damaris let him tilt her head so he could deepen the kiss, then let him crush her to his strong, hard body, enfold her, protect her.
His lips freed hers. Damaris opened stunned eyes to look into his. Silver blue around dark, endless empires. But he looked insufferably pleased with himself.
She gripped his hair. His eyes widened -- good. Before he could resist, she pushed him back against the side of the coach and kissed him as thoroughly as he'd kissed her. She'd never done such a thing before, but let instinct rule as she whirled with him back into the storm.
When she broke the kiss to pant for breath, she realized she was straddling him. Her breasts ached and she pressed them against him, returning stinging lips to his again and again and again-
He twisted away. "Damaris, we have to stop!"
Then she heard what he'd heard.
Gravel. They were nearing the stables!
She was back at Rothgar Abbey, and tangled in disaster again.
What had she been thinking?
She'd not been thinking at all. She'd been overtaken by a force as fierce as the panic that had driven her into flight. Heaven alone knew what would have happened if they'd not had to stop. As the coach rattled into the stable yard of Rothgar Abbey she stole one quick glance at him.
Her look clashed with his. She instantly looked away again trying to interpret his dark, blank expression.
Lord Henry Malloren wrenched open the carriage door. “Pox on you, you plaguey chit! What in the name of the devil are you up to now to shame us all?"
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