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Authors: Victoria Alexander

Tags: #Fantasy, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Historical, #Adult, #Regency, #Contemporary

The Perfect Mistress

BOOK: The Perfect Mistress
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THE
PERFECT
KISS

“He would take you in his arms and kiss you long and hard in spite of your protests,” Harrison said. “The way he has wanted to do from the moment he met you!”

“That’s what you think a man like Ellsworth would do?”

“That’s what I know a man like Ellsworth would do.”

“And what about you, Harrison?” She stared up at him, knowing even as she said the words, these were dangerous waters. “What would a man like you do?”

“Me?” His gaze slipped from her eyes to her lips. “I would never take advantage of a beautiful woman on a darkened terrace.”

“Why not?”

“It would be … dishonorable.”

“And you are an honorable man?”

“Most certainly.”

“And you would never take advantage?”

“Never.”

“Not even if you thought that because of her ancestry she wouldn’t protest?”

“Not even then.” He paused. “And I would never think that.”

“But what if she wanted you to kiss her?”

Their gazes locked for a long moment. He turned and her heart sank. He took a step. Then paused. “Damnation, Julia!”

He swiveled back and without warning pulled her into his arms and kissed her hard and long and quite thoroughly until her knees weakened and she thought she might swoon in his arms …

I have no true regrets, Dear Reader. You should know that from the beginning. Oh, certainly, I have not always chosen as wisely as I should have. I have taken roads that might have been best ignored and made some decisions that, in hindsight, were not especially wise, but even the most egregious of those inevitably led to grand adventure. Indeed, one might say the more disastrous the choice, the grander the adventure.

I am under no illusions that what I now sit down to write will ever be read. The world is a far stuffier place than it was in my younger days. Still, I would like to have my life remembered in some fashion. So I take pen in hand to record my adventures. I dare not leave these memoirs to my children; they are entirely too proper and too concerned with the opinions of others to be trusted with my remembrances. They have never accepted the passion with which I choose to live my life; there is too much of their father in them to understand. Thus the estrangement between us for far too many years. I confess that perhaps that is indeed a regret, but there is nothing to be done about it now. If I had known my life would have caused such a rift I cannot in good conscience say I would have done anything differently, but I might have. Still, one never knows the consequences of one’s actions until it is too late.

I should add that my realistic view of my children, and their respective natures, in no way negates my love. They are who the world has shaped them to be. I have heard it said that while many qualities are passed from parent to
child, it is as often true that some traits skip one or more generations. I do hope that the granddaughter I have never seen inherits from me the joy I have found in life and my spirit of adventure. It is with that wish that I leave this to her. Perhaps she will find a use for it someday, be that public dissemination or private perusal. At this writing, I am in my sixtieth year and she is far too young to understand a lifetime that may at first glance appear to be little more than filled with scandal but was, in truth, quite glorious. At least, I found it so.

I have decided to entitle this in a most immodest manner as my nature has grown less modest through the years. Indeed, I see no need for undue modesty. I am who I am, for good or ill. I hope you take pleasure in the perusal of my reminiscences, but if you find them too scandalous for enjoyment, I make no apologies. As I said, I have no regrets. So I shall call this work what I, for the most part, was:
The Perfect Mistress.

from
The Perfect Mistress,
the Memoirs of Lady Hermione Middlebury

Chapter One

London, 1885

“… and I would therefore be most delighted to publish your great-grandmother’s memoirs.” Benjamin Cad-wallender’s voice rang in Lady Julia Winterset’s small parlor as if he were offering eternal salvation and choirs of celestial angels would appear at any moment to accompany his words.

She raised a brow. Eternal salvation was not what she sought from Cadwallender and Sons, Publishers but rather rescue of a more down-to-earth nature. Financial salvation as it were. “I must confess I am surprised, Mr. Cadwallender, that you would make such an offer on the basis of what little I allowed you to read. No more than a chapter if I recall.”

“Yet what a chapter it was.” He chuckled. “If the rest is even a fraction as interesting as what I have already read,
The Perfect Mistress, the Memoirs of Lady Hermione Middlebury
, shall be a rousing success.”

Julia considered him. “Do you really think so?”

“Oh, I do indeed.” He nodded vigorously. “I have mentioned this project, in a most discreet manner, mind you, to a few trusted colleagues and they concur. Do not underestimate the appetite of the public for works of this nature, especially if they are factual.”

“By ‘this nature’ do you mean scandalous?”

“Well, yes, to an extent. But as Lady Middlebury has been dead these past thirty years, and the incidents she reveals are older yet, it is not nearly as disreputable as it might be if she were alive today and in the midst of—”

“Her adventures?” Julia said with a smile.

“Exactly.” Mr. Cadwallender’s handsome face flushed. “Admittedly, the writing itself is not as fine as Mr. Trol-lope’s or Mr. Dickens’s or even Mrs. Gaskell’s or Mrs. Carik’s but, as it is written in your ancestor’s own words and in a remarkably engaging and enthusiastic style, a certain lack of polish can be overlooked. Particularly given the nature of the, er, adventures she relates.”

“And you think it will sell well?”

“Lady Winterset.” He lowered his voice in a conspiratorial manner. “Scandal sells books. I predict this will be a book that will be the subject of a great deal of discussion, which will only make those who haven’t read it wish to do so.”

“I see. How very interesting.”

“And profitable,” he said pointedly.

“That too,” she murmured.

There was a time, not so long ago, when she would have considered the word
profitable
in a conversation somewhat distasteful. Proper ladies did not discuss matters of a profitable nature nor did they discuss finances with anyone other than their husbands. Indeed, if anyone had asked her before her husband’s death three years ago, if she had a head for finances, aside from administering the household accounts, she would have laughed. But everything had changed since William’s death. Thus far, she had managed to stretch the little savings her husband had left with frugal living and an eye toward a bargain. Nonetheless, if she did not take action soon, she would be penniless. She had far too many responsibilities to permit that to happen. Life had changed and so had she.

Three years ago, the eminently proper wife of Sir William Winterset would have been shocked at the very thought of making public her great-grandmother’s scandalous remembrances, even if she had no idea of the work’s existence until recently. The woman she had become was different, stronger hopefully, than the woman she had been. That woman was dependent upon her husband. This woman depended on no one but herself and would do what she must to survive. Even though she had not finished her reading of her great-grandmother’s memoirs, what she had read thus far, as well as odd dreams triggered by her reading, convinced her that her great-grandmother would not only approve of Julia’s plan but applaud it.

She drew a deep breath. “I assume you have a sum in mind for the rights of publication.”

“I do indeed.” Mr. Cadwallender pulled an envelope from his waistcoat pocket and placed it on the table between his chair and hers.

Julia picked up the envelope, pulled out the paper inside, unfolded it, and stared at the figure written in Mr. Cadwallender’s precise hand. Her heart sank but she refused to let disappointment show on her face.

“That figure does not take into account continued royalties which I expect to be considerable,” Mr. Cadwallen-der said quickly.

She refolded the paper and replaced it in the envelope. “It does strike me as rather meager, Mr. Cadwallender.” She cast him her most pleasant smile. “For a book you expect to be a rousing success.”

“Yes, well …” Mr. Cadwallender shifted in his chair. “Might I be completely candid, Lady Winterset?”

“I expect nothing less.”

“As well you should.” Mr. Cadwallender paused, his brow furrowed. “My grandfather began the publication of
Cadwallender’s Weekly World Messenger
nearly eighty years ago. When he began publishing books as well, he named the firm Cadwallender and Sons, overly optimistic as it turned out as he only had one son and several daughters. That son, my father, surpassed his father and sired six sons as well as two daughters. My two older brothers, myself, and my next younger brother joined in the family business as was expected.” He directed her a firm look. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be in the position of a middle son in both one’s family and one’s business?”

“No idea at all. I imagine it could be somewhat awkward.”

“Somewhat? Hah!” He snorted and rose to his feet to pace the room. “My voice is heard only after my father and my two older brothers have had their say. I am consistently overruled in any matter in which my opinion differs from theirs. My ideas are scarcely ever considered.” He paused in midstep and met her gaze. “And I have ideas, Lady Winterset. Excellent ideas. The world is changing. We are a scant fifteen years from the dawn of a new century. Progress is in the air and we must seize the opportunities for change and advancement. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, I would think so,” she said cautiously.

He stared at her for a moment then recovered his senses. “My apologies. I should not allow myself to be carried away in this manner.

“Nonsense, Mr. Cadwallender. There is no need to apologize for the passion of one’s convictions.” She smiled. “But I fear I don’t see what this has to do with my great-grandmother’s book.”

“Lady Winterset.” Mr. Cadwallender retook his seat and met her gaze with a fervor akin to that of a missionary converting heathens. “I think this book will be a very great success. The sort of success publishing houses are built upon. That establishes a publisher as a legitimate force in the market.”

“I don’t understand.” She pulled her brows together. “As you mentioned, Cadwallender and Sons has been in business for a very long time. Its reputation is well known.”

“It is indeed. However, the reputation of Cadwallender Brothers Publishing has yet to be established.” He grimaced. “Not unexpected as the company has yet to publish a single book.”

She shook her head. “I still don’t—”

“My younger brother and I have started our own firm. We have experience, funding, and investors confident of our future. Neither of us are averse to the hard work that lies ahead and I have no doubt as to our ultimate success.” He met her gaze. “I would very much like
The Perfect Mistress
to be our first offering.”

“I see.” She studied him for a moment. “You’re going to compete against your father?”

“My father has decided to turn over the management of the company to my brothers. I do not wish to spend the rest of my life engaged in battles I cannot win. Furthermore, the publishing of books is of far less importance to them than the
Messenger,
which has always been the primary focus of the firm. My brothers are intent upon launching additional publications as well.” He squared his shoulders. “I do not see this as competition as much as the development and expansion of a field they have little interest in. A field, I think, that is the way of the future.”

“Your enthusiasm is commendable, however—”

A knock sounded at the door and immediately it opened.

“Beg pardon, my lady,” her butler, Daniels, said with his usual air of cool competence. “Lady Smithson and Lady Redwell have arrived.”

“Oh dear.” She glanced at the ormolu clock on the overmantel. “I didn’t realize the time.” She rose to her feet, the publisher immediately following suit. “Mr. Cad-wallender, my initial inquiry was predicated on the upstanding reputation of Cadwallender and Sons. I am not at all certain I have the … the courage required to trust the fate of this book to a new venture. I fear, therefore, I shall have to query another publisher and—”

“Lady Winterset.” Mr. Cadwallender clasped her hand in his and met her gaze directly. “I beg you not to make a hasty decision. Please give me the opportunity to further plead my case. I assure you, you will not regret it.”

She stared into his earnest, hazel eyes. Very nice eyes really that struck her as quite trustworthy, even if that might be due as much to his fervor as anything else. Still, there was no need to make a decision today.

“Very well, Mr. Cadwallender.” She smiled and withdrew her hand. “I shall give your proposal due consideration.”

BOOK: The Perfect Mistress
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