Whose hot kisses will melt the ice princess? All London is agog to know!
As the season reaches its brilliant climax, three very different men pursue beautiful Lady Marianne Seaton. She’s the marriage mart’s greatest prize – even if cruel and unjust gossip paints her as a woman cold and glittering as any diamond.
Lord Desborough is her father’s choice – rich, powerful, safe. Lord Tranter is society’s darling – handsome, dashing, charming.
Then there’s the dangerous, compelling man nobody in their right mind calls eligible. Elias Thorne, son of scandal, reputed deceiver, possessing a rakish fascination no woman can resist. A lady might choose Elias as a lover, but as a husband, he’s too risky a bet. Even if Marianne’s forbidden yearning for him threatens her future and her reputation.
When Marianne’s suitors pursue her to the year’s most glamorous house party, there will be proposals and passion, rivals and revelations, secrets and scandals.
Let battle commence – but will the best man win?
An international e-book release ~ 1st July 2015
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It was late when Marianne left Sidonie’s parlor. After her friends retired, she’d lingered behind to select a book from her hostess’s stash of naughty novels. Although given how fragile she felt, some improving volume on stoic philosophy might be a better choice.
Marianne told herself that she felt so low because she was tired and the day had been beyond difficult. But thinking of everything she’d never have made her falter to a stop. Blinking back stinging tears, she leaned one hand on the wall of the lamplit corridor. Standing in the quiet hallway while the rest of Ferney slept, she finally admitted that blindly following her father’s dictates was poor spirited. Worthy of George Seaton’s insipid daughter, not of the woman who claimed gallant Sidonie Merrick and brilliant Genevieve Harmsworth as friends.
She’d never gone after what she wanted. And because she’d always done what she was told, a lifetime of dreary duty stretched ahead. The house crowded around her, silently reproaching her for her cowardice.
Except when she clambered out of her slough of self-pity, the house wasn’t completely silent. Somewhere someone played the piano. Something slow and melancholy.
Marianne had sent her maid away before she came downstairs. Her father had gone to bed hours ago. She hadn’t seen her suitors since dinner.
Nobody waited for her. Nobody watched her.
This was so unusual that it felt like freedom. If she wished to enjoy beautiful music in the still of the night, no one would gainsay her.
She drifted toward the music room where Desborough had proposed. Even that memory couldn’t pierce her trance.
She was close enough now to identify the piece. Part of a Beethoven sonata, slow arpeggios and solemn bass, music that always made her picture moonlight on a calm sea. When she’d left Sidonie’s parlor, she’d been weary to the point of dropping. Now she felt alert, curious, strangely expectant.
The pianist reached the end and Marianne waited outside the closed door, wanting more.
As if in response to her unspoken request, the mysterious musician began the piece again. Soft, sweet, sad, beautiful. Whoever played was an artist indeed. For a long time, she stood captive in the empty hallway, the exquisite music making her want to cry.
Unable to resist, she edged the door open. In Ferney, the doors didn’t dare squeak so she was safe from discovery. For a few transfixed minutes, she poised on the threshold.
A branch of candles on the gleaming square piano. Rain catching gold from the candlelight as it battered the windowpanes. The tall man with black hair sitting with his back to her while he played from memory.
“Come in,” Elias said softly, without interrupting the steady procession of notes.
Of course it was Elias. Somewhere in her soul, she’d known that from first hearing the music. She glanced past him and realized he could see her hovering figure in its rich purple taffeta gown reflected in the wet glass.
Her belly knotted in useless yearning. Her fingers curled at her sides, aching to touch those straight shoulders, that long back. She bit her lip to curb a sigh of longing. Good sense dictated that she retreat, but the rebellion that had sparked earlier demanded that she snatch this moment. She’d spent her life avoiding danger and all it had got her was a wedding to Lord Desborough to look forward to.
On shaky legs, she edged further into the room and waited without speaking as Elias finished the Beethoven and continued into music she didn’t know. Something bittersweet that spoke of opportunities lost and joy so fleeting that it vanished even as it bloomed.
Her fingers clenched around the thin leather volume she carried. She’d heard Elias play before. Occasionally he accompanied a singer at a musicale and he’d played for dancing at Cam and Pen’s Christmas party. She’d never heard him make music purely for its own sake. It was a revelation. She’d fought her attraction to him. Tonight as he conjured such transcendent beauty with his fingers, she gave up fighting. Twice today they’d exchanged bitter words, but right now she couldn’t summon anything except a forbidden delight in his presence.
When the rippling accompaniment finally stopped, he rested his hands on the ivory keys before he turned to meet her eyes. “You’re crying.”
She raised an unsteady hand to her wet cheeks. The music had cut through her pretense at serenity to the roiling turmoil in her heart. “Yes.”
A smile hovered around his mouth. “Was I so bad?”
Confused emotions crowded too close for her to rise to his gentle teasing. “What was that last music?”
“Something by a young Viennese composer called Franz Schubert. I met him when I visited the city and he gave me a copy.”
“You’re lovely.” He rose from the piano stool and approached slowly as if afraid she’d fly away if he made any sudden movement. “I was thinking of you as I played.”
She should tell him to be quiet. She should turn on her heel and retreat to her lonely bed.
The music must contain magic because instead, she remained in quivering stillness. Waiting.
As Elias reached out to release her hold on her book, he glanced idly at the cover. His mouth curled in admiration. “’Lady Jane’s Secret’? There’s hope for you yet. Does Lady Marianne have a secret, too?”
Her heart beat so hard, it promised to smash clear out of her chest. A distant corner of her mind was astonished at her daring. The lily-livered Marianne she’d always considered herself would have fled long before this. For once the pleasure of the moment outweighed her fears of what he might want from her. “Everyone has secrets.”
“Let’s see if I can discover yours.”
That statement, however idly spoken, was a threat. They both knew it was. So why was she standing here, staring up at Elias as if he offered the answer to her prayers? She swallowed to moisten her parched throat, but nothing calmed the mad throb of her blood.
He set the book on the piano behind him. Without looking away from her, he reached past to shut the door, then linked his fingers with hers. Immediate heat shimmered through her. Her lips parted on a soft betraying gasp.
Through the rising mists of enchantment, a warning clanged, barely audible over the thump of her heart. Her feet in their lilac silk slippers remained glued to the parquet floor and her gaze remained fastened to his. Who knew black could contain so much light? She tumbled into a million stars.
Run, Marianne, run.
She swam in luminous night eyes while his clean, musky scent fed her senses. Even as he bent his dark head toward her, still with that watchfulness, she kept silent.
Those long musician’s fingers flexed on hers without tightening. The merest hint of coercion would chase her off. He let her retain the illusion that she had some choice in what happened.
His other hand cupped her jaw with more of that breathtaking sweetness. He’d touched her before, but not like this, not with such intimacy, not as if the merest breath might shatter her.
As naturally as a swallow learned to fly, his lips met hers. She stood beneath the kiss, drowning in unearthly tenderness. This was a question, not a demand. Her eyelids became heavy and fluttered down, abandoning her to a universe of touch and taste and scent.
Before Marianne worked out how to respond to his chaste kiss, it was over. On a sigh so soft that she only heard it because they stood so close, he pulled away.
Unwillingly she opened her eyes, not sure what she’d find in his face. Triumph? Disdain? Desire?
His expression was unfathomable. This Elias was a stranger. For the first time tonight, an eddy of fear tightened her stomach.
“You…you shouldn’t have done that,” she said unsteadily, struggling to remember duty and honor and common sense. All those important, serious concepts were less substantial than the invisible thread tethering her to this place and this man. When her tongue touched her lips, she tasted something new. Elias?
“I’ve wanted to kiss you for months.” His voice was rich and deep as sable.
“Months?” she asked wonderingly, too beguiled to find that intimidating.
“Since I first saw you at the Worthingtons’ ball in March last year.”
“You didn’t speak to me then. We weren’t introduced until the Oldhavens’ musicale, the night Pen made her debut as Duchess of Sedgemoor.”
His lips lifted in a smile that she felt in her heart more than saw with her eyes. “You remember?”
She blushed, but couldn’t muster the gumption to retreat. What would he say if she told him she remembered every meeting? Those occasions were few enough. Elias hadn’t played a part in London society until he’d inherited the Wilmott title after his brother’s death last year.
“I’ve wondered how it would feel to hold you in my arms,” he whispered, although there was nobody except Marianne to hear.
“You haven’t held me in your arms,” she said dazedly and only realized when his beautifully cut mouth quirked that her statement sounded like an invitation.
“I’ll dare the devil and take my chance.”
Marianne was clearly mad because even after he stated his intentions, she didn’t flee. Instead she remained waiting and uncertain as he slowly curved his arms around her, with that care that racked her heart with longing.
Very gently he molded her against him. She’d never been so conscious of his height, nor of the constrained power in the lean form so wickedly close to hers. They’d danced together several times, but this was different.
A soft whimper escaped her. She wished she could call the sound an objection, instead of an expression of pleased astonishment at how a man’s embrace felt. This man’s embrace.
Knowing it was folly to succumb, she softened. At her yielding, so subtle she was surprised he noticed, his hold firmed.
She was overwhelmingly aware of the changes in Elias. The catch in his breathing, the shift of each muscle, the scent that made her want to bury her nose in his white shirt and never breathe mundane fresh air again.
Astounding how warm he was, like a great radiating stove. Astounding how safe she felt.
She’d had no idea that the nearness of a large, virile male could connect her so powerfully to life’s currents. What a melancholy reflection that she’d waited this long to discover how marvelous a man’s touch could be.
When he leaned her to the side and tilted her chin up with one hand, she didn’t stiffen. She suffered an agony of suspense until he placed his lips on hers.
Last time she could blame her cooperation on surprise. Not this time. This time he gave her plenty of warning that he intended to kiss her. But the music and the candlelight and the sudden easing of a lifelong loneliness she only now recognized kept her acquiescent.
All that, and her forbidden, eternal craving for him.
For an incalculable, heavenly interval, his lips rested on hers without demand. It was like a more languid version of his first kiss. Then those strong arms gathered her up and his lips moved. Unfamiliar response flared and her knees, already wobbly, threatened to collapse. Although she was in no danger of falling, she tentatively curled her fingers over his straight, strong shoulders.
Elias raised his head and stared down at her. “You tempt fate, my love.”
The endearment made her shiver. How she wished it was true. Before she could force a denial from her tight throat, he claimed her mouth once more.
And the world caught fire.