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What Happens in the Ballroom

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A youthful widow, Eliza Pierce is enjoying both freedom and financial success as part of Elegant Occasions. Then her late husband’s best friend, Nathaniel Stanton, the Earl of Foxstead, hires Elegant Occasions to help another young widow of an officer become part of high society, and Eliza wonders why. Is the woman a relative? Or is she the earl’s mistress and her adorable toddler his child? If so, why does he take Eliza in his arms every chance he gets . . .

Foxstead’s family situation makes it difficult for him to marry, so his visceral attraction to Lieutenant Pierce’s widow is an unwelcome complication. Sworn to secrecy concerning his friend’s life in the army, Foxstead is trying to honor the man’s last wishes, even when it means being around Eliza every day. But how can he resist when the fetching Eliza keeps tempting him to break his own rules? For if he dares to expose the truth, will she ever forgive him? Or will she banish him from her life forever . . .

Excerpt

“I confess that my sisters hate my feeding the birds,” she murmured. “The robins and blackbirds can be especially loud, and the nightingales sing too much for Diana and Verity during the very season of year when we come in exhausted before dawn. But the birds don’t bother me since I can’t ever go to bed right away anyway, so I like lying there listening to them.”

“Which explains why Geoffrey calls you a night-bird.”

She rolled her eyes. “He just prefers that everyone rise at dawn like he and Diana.”

That reminded him—Diana needed to be introduced to his ward. He turned toward the bench where the two women sat, and Eliza placed a hand on his arm.

When his gaze shot to her, she murmured, “Let them talk a minute and get to know each other.”

“But I must introduce Diana.”

“I already did, while you were examining the birdhouse.”

“Ah. I merely thought . . . well . . . Jocelin was nervous about meeting a duchess.”

“She doesn’t look it. Meanwhile, I send her into a fright every time.” Eliza lowered her voice. “The poor woman doesn’t like me, does she?”

He sighed. “I’m sure she would if not for who you are. To me, I mean. I should never have given in to the impulse to let her see me kiss you yesterday.”

“I regret that it happened, too.”

“You misunderstand me. I don’t regret the kisses. I just wish we could have indulged in them privately.” Where he could have embraced her and touched her breasts and had his very wicked way with her.

What was wrong with him? Jocelin had to be his first responsibility, so why was he risking alienating the very person who could get her settled in society? “Those kisses were all I could think of last night,” he admitted.

Because clearly he’d lost his damned mind.

“Says the rakehell with the notorious reputation,” she countered.

That chafed a bit. “Not anymore.”

“The rakehell part or the notorious reputation part?”

“The first. Once one has a notorious reputation, one can’t get rid of it easily.”

She smiled. “As my parents have repeatedly demonstrated.”

“But truthfully, it’s been some time since I’ve actually behaved like a rakehell.”

“I’m simply supposed to take your word for it?”

“You have to do what makes you comfortable.” He stole the bag of seed from her, taking care to run his finger across her palm as he did so. “And I have to do the same.” He scattered some seeds over the ledge himself as he fought to quell his racing heart. “After all, I still have a rakehell’s skills, which I can use very well. Do you doubt me?”

“No, indeed. You were very . . . skilled yesterday.” She cocked her head. “The question is how many women you use those skills with.”

“None in quite some years. Until you, anyway.” Taking her hand, he closed her fingers about the bag of seed and held it there, marveling at how delicate a hand she had. “I know you probably don’t believe it, but it’s true.”

War had changed him, no doubt about it. He’d seen too many women used and abused on the Peninsula not to be affected. His mother’s revelations had also taken a toll.

When Eliza finally slipped her hand from his, looking flustered and heated, he glanced over to see that Diana and Jocelin were gone. “We should go in.” He couldn’t believe Jocelin had left without saying a word to him.

“Not just now,” Eliza said.

He narrowed his gaze on her. “I beg your pardon?”

“She and Diana have gone up to the fitting room so they can try some gowns on her to determine what styles she looks best in.” She tilted her head up. “So unless you wish to see your ward in various stages of undress . . .”

“God, no.”

That seemed to please her, which definitely pleased him.

She thrust the bag of seeds in her apron pocket. “Then why don’t you and I discuss the plan for Jocelin that my sisters and I have developed? If you approve, I can spell out how much the fee would be.”

So they were back to business affairs. Fine. That was probably best. “I don’t care how much it is. I’ll pay it regardless.”

“Really.” She eyed him skeptically. “So, a hundred-thousand pounds sounds right to you?”

His mouth dropped open. “A hundred-thousand pou—”

Her peal of laughter cut off his outraged response. Trying to suppress a smile, she said, “In other words, you do care how much it is.”

“I have money, you little minx, and I’m willing to spend it to get Jocelin well-situated,” he snapped. It was the least he could do for her under the circumstances. “But that doesn’t mean I’m insane.”

“Thank goodness.” Her eyes twinkled. “I wouldn’t wish to go into business with a madman.”

Shaking his head, he flashed her a rueful smile. “What is the actual fee you’re proposing?”

She named a more reasonable figure, which was less than he’d been expecting.

“That sounds acceptable.”

“I can provide you with an estimated amount for each item or service we intend to provide. Just give me until tomorrow.”

He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I don’t need the details. I know none of you would cheat me.”

“Oh, you do, do you? Clearly you and Geoffrey are cut of a different cloth.”

He shrugged. “That’s because I was raised in the aristocracy while he was used to watching every penny. I suppose that’s what happens when you discover at his age that you’ve unexpectedly inherited a dukedom and all that goes with it. Old habits die hard, as they say.”

“True.” She gestured to the bench. “Why don’t we take a seat while we discuss everything my sisters and I have planned?”

“We could go inside and sit in the morning room.”

She hurried ahead of him to the bench. “I prefer the outdoors.”

“Clearly you do. But that’s not why you don’t wish to go in.” He chuckled. “You think being in the garden where your sisters can look out and see us will keep me from trying to kiss you.”

“Won’t it?” She sat down and spread her skirts around her in an obvious attempt to relegate him to the other end of the bench.

She obviously didn’t know him very well. Lifting a handful of her muslin skirts, he sat down close to her, then spread her skirts over his knee.

That seemed to flummox her. “A gentleman doesn’t commandeer a lady’s skirts, sir.”

“I’m not a gentleman,” he told her.

She frowned. “Weren’t you just telling me you’re not a rakehell anymore?”

“I’m not a rakehell either.” He hardened his voice. “I’m a soldier. And a soldier commandeers whatever he needs to win.”

“To win what?” she asked lightly.

“You.”

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