John Fitzwilliam, Fourth Earl of Claremont, is a young buck about town. He has a tidy townhouse, numerous estates, more money than a person could ever need, and a mistress who could—and does—make grown men cry with envy. He is feted and looked up to, and generally acknowledged as a master of all he touches (except in the boxing ring, but that's a story for another day). In other words, merry, unfettered bachelorhood quite agrees with Fitzwilliam.
So much so that he is reluctant to put an end to it and honor his longstanding obligation to marry his sweet but unexciting childhood companion, Addie Winstead.
Serious, and proper (at least on the outside), Addie has long nursed a tendre for her impossible betrothed. A girl would have to be pretty dim, however, not to be all too aware of how well the life of a carefree man about town suits him. But Addie has more to her life than waiting for Fitzwilliam to come up to scratch: she is exceedingly busy presiding over her secret life as Anonymous, society's favorite columnist, who mixes gossip and boxing most deliciously for the morning paper. Too busy, in fact, to spare Fitzwilliam a thought. Or much thought, anyway. Her income from her columns is all that stands between her family and a fall from the genteel poverty to which they are now managing to cling. And besides, she is too sensible a young lady to spend her time pining over a frivolous fiancé who doesn't want her.
Things seem well set and likely to continue in this vein for the foreseeable future, with neither party doing anything to upset the balance. Until that is, Fitzwilliam hears that Addie has rejected another suitor on his account and magnanimously offers to release her from their agreement. Something prettily said, along the lines of: "When I'm ready for the parson's mousetrap—say in five or ten years—if you're still unattached, I'll honor the agreement. But in the meantime, feel free to go ahead to ally yourself with someone else."
Surely even the most practical young lady could be forgiven for having her feathers ruffled by the gentleman's lack of sensitivity? And so, one cold winter morning, Addie writes a most unflattering (and appallingly truthful) column about Fitzwilliam's performance in the boxing ring that becomes the talk of London. And he retaliates one even colder winter night with a kiss that somehow leads to a challenge in the boxing ring, which leads to a house party, which changes everything.
The House Party from Hell: Cast of Characters other than the two principals:
Justine Winstead: Addie's sister.
Drew Mannering: Justine's betrothed and Fitzwilliam's best friend.
Wallace Raines: Addie's newly acquired hypochondriac of a fiancé (a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do to avoid a man like Fitzwilliam).
The warring dowagers:
Honoria Winstead: Addie's maiden aunt who has raised Addie and Justine since their father's death.
Gretchen Raines: Wallace's mother, Addie's future mother-in-law. Hypochondriac doesn't even begin to do her justice. She is not well pleased by her son's choice.
Millicent Haverford: An overbearing matchmaking mama whose carriage just happens to break down outside Fitzwilliam's country house.
Lavinia Haverford: Her beautiful, ready-to-be-matched daughter, with an eye for Fitzwilliam
Madeleine and Freddie Barrist: Drew's sister and her husband.
Raymond Walters: The young buck who has challenged Fitzwilliam to a contest over Addie's honor, in the one place Fitzwilliam hasn't a prayer of making a good accounting of himself: the boxing ring.
Antoine: Fitzwilliam's temperamental French chef.
How much luggage could possibly fit into one carriage? Addie wondered, looking out from her vantage point at the window of her bedroom. She held the luxurious gold silk of the draperies to the side and tallied what she had seen. Already eight trunks, six valises, ten traveling cases, seven portmanteaux, and a seemingly unending selection of hatboxes, bandboxes, reticules, and baskets had been unloaded. All of it, or at least the vast majority, if she was not mistaken, containing a selection of tonics, nostrums, and health-preserving outerwear. And now the footmen were bringing out yet another trunk, and her future husband, alongside her future mother-in-law, was directing them as to which items went where.
Gretchen Raines, Addie thought, was as daunting a figure as she remembered. Her serviceable bonnet was crammed down on what Addie knew from previous experience was a no-nonsense knot of steel-colored hair pulled uncompromisingly back from her face. Her outer garments were buttoned to her chin. And somehow, Addie got the feeling that she was not as much resigned to this match as Wallace made out.
At this moment, she was, unless Addie missed her guess, in the midst of reading Wallace a thundering scold over his lack of a hat and gloves. Poor Wallace. Already possessed of a dragon of a mother and about to be shackled to a terrible wife. Addie leaned her head against the cool glass of the windowpane and thought about their predicament. Not, of course, that she thought about much else these days and especially had not on the journey north. She closed her eyes. And it was all the worse because the situation was entirely of her own making. But there could not possibly, it was being borne in on her second by second, be a more ill-suited couple than Wallace and herself.
Opening her eyes again, Addie watched Wallace return to the house and disappear from her view, presumably through the front door, only to reappear a moment later, garbed in hat and gloves. His mama smiled her approval.
Somehow, no matter how hard she tried, she just could not imagine feeling more than a moderate amount of affection for Wallace. At least with Fitzwilliam there were some vestiges of their old friendship, which seemed of late to have been reappearing. And certainly it seemed there was heat between them, something of an understatement considering that she seemed in danger of igniting every time he touched her.
Bit wed to Fitzwilliam, she told herself brutally, she'd better be damned well prepared to share that heat with whomever took his fancy of the moment. Goodness knows his mother had where his father was concerned. And it certainly seemed, if his past was anything to go by, that there was heat between Fitzwilliam and any number of people.
Perhaps the thing to do, she mused, was to get Wallace to kiss her. A proper kiss this time. Maybe she would practically ignite in his arms after all.
A tap on the door interrupted her observations and, turning from the window, she bade the person enter. "Good morning, Sally. Thank you for the breakfast tray this morning. I suppose I was a little more tired from yesterday's travel than I had realized," she said, by way of greeting the maid who had been assigned her during their stay.
"Begging your pardon, miss," Sally said with a little curtsy. "But if you don't mind, I'll just have these set down in here." She gestured behind her, and Addie became aware of two footmen attempting not to struggle under the weight of the two trunks, one balanced atop the other, that they held between them. "And one of the housemaids will be up in a trice to take care of things."
Addie smiled. "Thank you, Sally, but that won't be necessary. I think there is some misunderstanding. These are not my trunks."
"Begging your pardon, miss," Sally said again, and Addie eyed the trunks with mistrust. "But Mr. Raines said as how we was to bring them up to you and send someone immediately to make up your bed with new linens."
"But I've slept in it only one night. And the linens, I trust, were clean before my arrival?"
"Of course, miss," Sally looked shocked that anyone could expect otherwise. "Why Mrs. Jeffcott would never countenance anything less."
"Well then, you see? I am sure they are fine until such a time as Mrs. Jeffcott deems new ones necessary."
"Very well, you may put them down in here," Addie said, with a distinct lack of graciousness, but having taken some measure of pity on the poor footmen balancing the trunks between them. She watched as they did so and then sped off with a palpable air of relief. "However, I hardly think I need to have the bed changed when I've slept in it but one night. We'll just leave them, and Mr. Raines need never know."
"But Mr. Raines said, miss, as how the linens on the beds here, being of silk and the like, presented a danger to the lungs. Most explicit, he was, that you were at no cost to sleep another night on them," the maid explained, looking terrified. "Said as how your lungs were excessively delicate and you could breathe in harmful vapors from the silk and do yourself damage! And that my job was as good as gone if I let you. I'd no idea, miss, I swear, or I—"
"Sally!" Addie stemmed the flow of chatter. "I assure you. Your job is quite safe. My lungs are fine—"
"I'll say they are," said Fitzwilliam, stepping lightly into the room. "I can hear you bellowing halfway across the house! You may leave us, Sally."
"Yes, milord." Sally gave him a brief curtsey before fleeing, looking, Addie decided, almost as relieved as the footman had.
"I was not bellowing, Fitzwilliam," Addie said.
"Turning my household upside down already, are you, Addie?" he asked, looking amused.
"I was simply pointing out, Fitzwilliam, that the linens hardly needed to be changed after but one night."
"But what of the harmful vapors?" he asked as he closed the door. "Are you not concerned?"
"I am confident I can withstand their effects—Open that door, Fitzwilliam. On the instant," she snapped. "This cannot be at all the thing."
"But we need to talk. Do we not, ah, Anonymous?"
Addie flushed. "Don't call me that." This was the first time she had been alone, really alone, in his presence since he had pushed her up against that wall—a memory that had haunted her far more than it should have, since it was an episode best forgotten. And his nearness inside her bedchamber, no less, was unsettling.
"I do need your help, as you may recall." He was leaning negligently, and quite safely, as far as her virtue was concerned, against the closed door. "If Raymond Walters is not to kill me, after all. And this seemed a good opportunity to discuss our plans."
"Oh, I recall well enough, Fitzwilliam," she said, crossing to the writing desk and producing a sheet of vellum. "Although I hardly agree that this is the appropriate time or place for such a discussion."
He raised an eyebrow. "Shall we have it instead in the drawing room over tea, Addie?" he asked, taking the sheet of vellum from her hand. "Perhaps Mrs. Raines would like to participate. After she finishes overseeing the unloading and inspects her son for signs of ill health, of course." He studied the page in silence for a moment, and then looked up, frowning. "What the devil?"
"Just a little program of training I've jotted down, Fitzwilliam," Addie replied with a grin that he could hardly credit coming from the same Addie Winstead he knew from the ballrooms of London, so full of the devil was it. "A regimen that I think you will find vastly improves your performance in the ring. Jackson did assure me, you know, before I agreed to take you on, that you would follow any regimen I gave you."
"Yes, but Addie—"
She held up a hand to stop him. "I realize, Fitzwilliam, that this may seem drastic. But Captain Robert Barclay, who is an acknowledged master of ritual training, always prescribes it to the letter."
"But I had assumed that we would work on my hitting, some footwork, perhaps, to start."
"And we shall, but you get ahead of yourself, I'm afraid. We need to start with conditioning. You must first attend to your stamina and physique."
"I hardly think," he said, softly, pushing himself off of the closed door where he had been leaning and beginning to advance on her with such feral grace that Addie backed up a step, "that my stamina—"
Addie backed up another step.
"—or my physique—"
Another step. God, his eyes were mesmerizing.
"—are any cause—"
She stopped backing up, only because she felt the backs of her legs brush up against the edge of the bed. Really, he was far too close. "Do you, Addie, think my physique is any cause for concern?"
She made her tone dry. "Indeed it is hard to tell what, if anything, is under those painted-on jackets, Fitzwilliam. Although I understand they are all the crack for a Bond Street beau."
He stopped in his tracks. "A Bond Street beau! Are you implying, Addie," he asked, still looking far more amused than he'd any right to, she decided, "that I am padded under these jackets? Because I assure you, this is all me. Do you care to check?"
God, how he wished she would. He could hardly believe how much he wanted her little hand, both hands, on this chest, sliding over his shoulders, down his arms… He took a steadying breath.
Addie shook her head, her throat suddenly too dry to respond. Unfortunately for her peace of mind, she already knew far too well what lay under Fitzwilliam's jackets. And it was the last thing she wanted to think about.
"Of course," he said, with the air on one deep in thought, "if I win this little boxing match, you'll be marrying me, Addie, as we promised our fathers you would, and—"
"I'll be doing no such thing, Fitzwilliam," she replied. "I have every intention of completely ignoring this ridiculous wager. And anyway, unless you start following this regimen"—she tapped the sheet he held—"there's not much point in discussing what will happen in the event that you win."
"So you still insist on this absurd course of action, do you?"
"One must take the first step when it comes to training," she replied, her voice prim.
"I meant marrying Wallace Raines."
"One generally marries one's fiancé, Fitzwilliam."
"Generally," he replied equably. "But Addie?"
"Have you given any thought to what is beneath those baggy sacks he calls jackets?"
"No!" she said in repressive accents. "Certainly I have not."
"Well I should were I you. If there is one thing a husband wants, it is an interest from his wife's direction in what lies under his jacket."
"This conversation cannot be considered at all proper, Fitzwilliam."
He grinned. "I know. Shall we have it again?"
"Get out," she advised through clenched teeth.
"Very well," he said, with a smile, and Addie breathed a sight of relief at his easy capitulation.
He backed up a few steps and sauntered toward the door, allowing her to put some distance between herself and the bed. Just as he was about to reach for the door handle, however, there was a tap on it.
Addie looked around wildly and then at him. "Addie?" came Justine's voice through the door. "Addie are you in there?"
"J-just a minute, Justine," she forced herself to say, looking accusingly at Fitzwilliam.
"I'll go in the dressing room," he whispered.
"It's locked," she whispered back.
"Sally hadn't got the key last night, and she was going to get one from Mrs. Jeffcott this morning, but I guess she forgot, what with the trunks—"
"Addie?" Justine called again.
"Just a second."
"Blast!" Fitzwilliam swore under his breath.
"Go! Get under the bed," Addie ordered him.
"Are you insane?"
"Ad-die? Are you all right?" Justine was starting to sound concerned.
"Just get under," Addie hissed, crossing the room. "You can't be found here. Justine! I didn't think to see you up and about so early," she said, brightly, as she opened the door immediately had Fitzwilliam's feet disappeared beneath the bed draperies…
LIKE IT? ORDER IT!