Authors: Molly Ann Wishlade
2014 Molly Ann
Cover Artist: Jay
WARNING: The unauthorized
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case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction.
All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual
events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely
To mistletoe lovers
everywhere, may all your Christmas wishes come
Copyright © 2014
“There he is.”
Anne Blackburn looked in the
direction of her friend’s extended fan and spied the target. Her heart leapt
and her body flooded with a rousing, tingling heat, for across the dance floor,
surrounded by a group of excited, giggling debutantes, was a veritable Adonis.
“Oh…” She licked her lips and
flicked out her fan, then
it over her ample chest
as if to counter the fire that now coursed through her veins.
Lady Jane Faulkner leaned toward her. “I point out the most
delightful looking gentleman in the whole of
on a Wednesday evening and that is all you can say, my dear?”
Anne tore her eyes away from the
golden-haired vision and met Jane’s curious gaze. Her cheeks burned as she
struggled to find words to articulate her thoughts.
“He is…most…comely. But who is
Jane threw back her head and
laughed, then placed a gloved hand upon Anne’s arm. “Oh, dearest Anne, that is
Mr. Guy Harper, a most talented artist, and he is
is he not? I fear you have been too long without male
company if you describe such a man as
But there is a way to solve that issue, you know.”
Anne shook her head. Beneath her
gown and chemise, her skin was hot and she imagined the relief she would feel
later when she was able to remove her stays. “No. Not that. I have sworn that I
will never marry again.”
Jane squeezed Anne’s arm.
“Of course not, Anne.
I am well aware of that. After
suffering the loss of your cherished husband, who would blame you? But you are
still young. At thirty-two, you have…needs. My dear, at my grand old age of
fifty-six, I still have needs and desires. Pray lower your eyebrows, Anne, and do
not seem so surprised.” Jane chuckled. “Just because I may have seen the end of
my courses, it does not mean that my body has relinquished its enjoyment of
being touched and adored. And such matters of the flesh can be catered to
without resorting to marriage if a woman has wisdom enough. Now, walk with me.”
Anne allowed Jane to take her arm
and they strolled around
London social club was filled with
making the most of the last few balls of the season. The landed and wealthy—who
had chosen to stay on in London during the summer months—would soon head off to
their country estates for the winter. Some of the ton vacated the city as soon
as the summer heat set in, but others preferred to linger a while longer,
especially those matriarchs with more than one daughter thus far unsuccessful
in the marriage mart.
As they walked, Anne admired the
ballroom. At one hundred feet long and forty wide, it was ideally suited to the
dancing and socializing that occurred within. The
walls were paneled and divided with paired pilasters
and decorated with festoons and
. The décor
gave the room an air of opulence and decadence, which Anne was
would have been the desired effect when it was designed.
The club only admitted those from the upper echelons of society, or those who
had won the favor of the beau monde. Vouchers to attend
were not bestowed upon those that the club’s patronesses disapproved of. Anne
knew that it was only her friendship with Lady Jane and her personal affluence
that kept the club’s doors open to her. One foot wrong, however, and those doors
could close just as quickly,
her a social
They neared the crowd of young
women with their pastel gowns, satin slippers, and pretty, curled hairstyles.
Anne was senior to most of them by at least ten years and well past the desired
marriageable age, unless seeking a widower who already had several children or
a rake tired of sowing his oats. Her fortune was considerable, of course, and
she was aware that with her thick chestnut hair, fair skin, and generous curves,
she was an attractive woman. Yet she also knew that most gentlemen considering
a first marriage would be seeking youthful virgins, not more mature widows like
For Anne, however, this was
completely acceptable as she had no intention of marrying a second time. She
enjoyed being in control of her own hearth and her own destiny. She had no
inclination to find another husband to take her hand or warm her bed. Although,
she had to admit, sometimes it would have been pleasant to have male company. She
did miss Alfred’s kindness and their lengthy political discussions, but they
hadn’t shared a bed since the first year of their marriage due to his
increasing poor health. He had, of course, been advised by his physician to
avoid overindulgence in food and fine wines, but they had been his greatest
weakness and in the end, his demise. The thought of him brought a familiar ache
to her heart and she rubbed the spot as if to soothe it. Alfred had not been
the husband she would have chosen had she been allowed that freedom, but she
knew that she’d been lucky. Many women ended up married to ogres who mistreated
them. Alfred had treated her like a princess in every way—except for the ones
that she had yearned to learn about in the marital bed.
That I still yearn to learn about.
“Mr. Harper is causing quite a
sensation amongst the ladies in London right now, you know,” Jane whispered as
they neared the handsome young man. “He is an artist of the highest ability. He
has painted many portraits this season…behind closed doors.” She winked at
“How haven’t I heard of him?”
Anne asked, suddenly feeling left out. A talented painter would be sought after
by the ton. So why hadn’t she heard his name mentioned before?
“I think, my
the ladies have been trying to keep him a secret. He was brought to
London by his patron about six months ago but he has been kept out of the
public eye until recently. The ladies I have spoken to learned about his
talents by word of mouth and that is how his reputation has grown in certain
closed social circles. I suspect that he is not as well known to the masculine
population of the ton. Or as sought after.”
Anne frowned at Jane’s words,
gazed at the gentleman who stood a good head and
shoulders above the ladies who circled him. His collar-length blonde curls
shone in the candlelight and Anne had a sudden urge to hurry forward and bury
her face in them. Would they smell like honey and almonds as she imagined they
“So he has been secreted away. Is
he that talented at capturing people’s likenesses then?” Anne stopped at Jane’s
side at the outer edges of the fluttering debutantes. The heat in the ballroom
was stifling and she desired a drink and some fresh air, but it wouldn’t be
polite to interrupt her friend.
“I think…in fact, I
, that it has more to do with the rumored
extras that Mr. Harper offers rather than what he produces on his easel.”
Anne stared at Jane. “Whatever do
Her friend colored slightly then
grinned, exposing her less-than-perfect teeth. “I think you are in need of an
my dear. It has been eighteen
months since you were widowed, so you have mourned far longer than is required.
It is high time that you shed your widow’s weeds and allowed yourself to
progress from your half-mourning in order to live again. I believe that Mr. Harper
may be able to help you with this process. I am already acquainted with him, so
I will introduce you immediately.”
Before Anne could open her mouth
to protest, Jane used her considerable social standing to carve a pathway
through the younger ladies. They stood back reluctantly, with pouts and the
occasional petulant stamp of a foot, but Jane pushed on as if ignorant of their
existence. She dragged Anne along with her until they stood right in front of
“Good evening, Lady Faulkner.
What a delight it is to see you again.” Anne forced her mouth closed as Mr.
Harper bowed over Jane’s hand and pressed his full pink lips to her glove. His sideburns
the color of honey in the candlelight and Anne
fought the urge to trace them with her fingers.
As he raised his head, he moved
his bright, silver-blue gaze to Anne and she was filled with heat that reached
the tips of her fingers and toes and settled erotically between her legs.
The sensations reminded her of those she
experienced in the illicit dreams she tried to banish from her mind on waking.
Six years fell away and she was suddenly as shy and vulnerable as she had been upon
her somewhat delayed entry into society as a twenty-six year old woman.
Mr. Harper released Jane,
reached for Anne’s hand and she allowed him to raise it
to his lips. He held it there for a moment and her heart threatened to burst
from her breast. She was confused yet delighted by her reaction to this man who
was clearly her junior by at least eight years. “It is an honor to make your
acquaintance, my lady.”
. Blackburn,” she corrected him.
“Mrs. Blackburn.” He repeated her
name without a hint of disappointment. So maybe he was not the type of fop who
sought only the company of the titled. Yet he also seemed unperturbed by her
marital status. Why did that leave her feeling disheartened? But then she realized
that, of course, her mourning attire would likely have given her widowhood
“Mr. Harper.” Jane moved forward
and placed a hand on his arm. “My friend here would be interested in
commissioning a portrait. She is a widow and it is time for her to leave her
mourning behind. I believe that a painting, or a series of paintings, might
help her to achieve this transition.”
Mr. Harper listened intently to
Jane before turning back to Anne. “I would love to paint you, Mrs. Blackburn.
And I have an opening in my calendar just next week due to a cancellation. May
I call on you tomorrow to discuss your requirements?”
Anne’s mouth dried up. When Mr.
Harper fixed his moonlit eyes upon her, she felt as if she was the only woman
in the ballroom, and the only woman who mattered to him. She tried to swallow
but her tongue refused to cooperate. What was wrong with her? She was a mature
woman and a widow, yet this young artist was making her act like a veritable
fool. She was struck dumb.
Frozen in time.
at him, searching his face for signs that he thought her an idiot but she could
find nothing there except for interest and kindness. Her fears dispersed like
snowflakes on the wet ground and were replaced by far more enjoyable emotions
as excitement, anticipation, and hope sparked in her gut. Though why, she could
not fathom nor reason.
Jane nudged her arm. “Tomorrow at eleven would be fine, would it not?”
Anne nodded and Mr. Harper smiled
at her, his silver-blue eyes twinkling like stars in the night sky. How she
would love to stare up at those stars as the young artist covered her wanton
body with sweet, hot kisses. A flush spread over her and she fanned herself
rapidly, desperate to prevent her wanton thoughts from showing on her face.