Authors: Erica Ridley
Tags: #Regency, #regency england, #Regency Romance
Too Wicked To Kiss
“A skillful blend of Gothic mystery and steamy romance.”
- Karen Rose
New York Times bestselling author
Too Sinful To Deny
“Sensual and witty.”
- Eloisa James
New York Times bestselling author
Born to Bite
“A real gem!”
- Jessie Potts
- Courtney Milan
New York Times bestselling author
Certain individuals might consider Lady Amelia Pembroke a managing sort of female, but truly, most people would be lost without her help. Why, the latest
is that rakish Viscount Sheffield is canceling the fête of the year because he hasn't time for silly soirees. He doesn't need time—he needs her!
When a flash of lightning destroys the venue for his family's annual Christmas ball, Lord Benedict Sheffield intends to enjoy a relaxing holiday for once. But after twelve days of beguiling Lady Amelia's guerrilla tactics, he's up to his cravat with tinsel . . . and tumbling head over heels in love.
Copyright © 2014 Erica Ridley
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover design © Erica Ridley
Photograph on cover © lanakhvorostova DepositPhotos
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
Table of Contents
Four left for war . . .
One stayed home.
December 12, 1815
Lady Amelia Pembroke glanced up from the well-worn almanac in her lap as her brother, the Duke of Ravenwood, strode into the yellow parlor with a distracted frown.
The yellow parlor, despite being part and parcel of the winter ducal mansion, was strictly Amelia’s domain. The bookcases were lined with rows of leather-bound journals containing page after page written in Amelia’s small, precise hand. The cherrywood table nearest the bay windows contained the day’s correspondence, stacked according to priority. The oversized basket beside her wingback chair brimmed with a week’s worth of periodicals, the ink worn gray from having been handled many times.
Amelia marked her place with a crisp green ribbon and set the almanac aside. Her brother’s presence could only mean he needed her wisdom on some matter. There was nothing she cherished more than the opportunity to put her mind to practical use.
Although she knew a kiss was not required of her—being an unproductive use of one’s time—she rose from her chair to buss her brother’s cheek. Ravenwood had always been a very solemn, duty-oriented young man, but both his smiles and his presence had been far scarcer these past few months, ever since his childhood friends finally came home from war.
Some of them, that was. A black armband never failed to encircle Ravenwood’s upper left arm. She fought the urge to hug him close. Were it not for having already inherited a dukedom, he would undoubtedly have followed his friends off to war.
Less certain was whether he would have made it home.
She walked to the fire to mask her shiver.
“Good morning, brother. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” When he didn’t join her before the fire, she turned to face him. “Is anything amiss?”
Ravenwood ran a hand through his wavy chestnut hair, upsetting the careful work of his valet.
Or not. Given the popularity of the “frightened owl” hairstyle today, Amelia couldn’t fathom much effort being involved at all.
He glanced at the clock upon the mantel. “I hate to bother you with last minute changes—”
“Whatever the issue, have no fear. My plans are meticulous enough to withstand disruptions of any sort.”
“Yes, well, even you could not have foreseen this disaster, and nothing will fix it. This afternoon’s luncheon—”
Before he could complete this thought, a knock sounded upon the parlor door.
With an apologetic smile, Amelia held up a brief finger to indicate the conversation would continue shortly. “One moment, I’ve been awaiting a messenger. Enter!”
One of the lead footmen slipped into the room, his face concerned. “I was unable to fetch Miss Azzara, my lady.”
She raised a brow. “She was not at home?”
“Oh no, my lady. Were that the case, I would surely have awaited her return. I’m afraid Miss Azzara has contracted the mumps, and will not be able to perform today after all.”
Ravenwood’s mouth parted in surprise. “Miss Azzara of Drury Lane? You’d mentioned we would provide musical entertainment as part of today’s luncheon, but I never dreamt you meant the second-most celebrated opera singer in all of London.”
“A good thing, too, since it seems it shan’t happen.”
“Let this be a lesson, Amelia. No plan is too meticulous for unforeseen circumstances to derail.”
She inclined her head to her brother and turned to address the footman. “Thank you. That will be all.”
He bowed. But before he could quit the parlor, a second footman arrived. This one, in grand contrast, was all smiles.
“Package delivered, my lady. Butler put her in the rose parlor, with the pianoforte.”
“Put . . . ‘her’?” Ravenwood echoed faintly.
“Miss Catalini,” the footman explained. “She’s to sing this afternoon. Her man is already practicing scales with her.”
“Miss Angelica Catalini?” Ravenwood swung his head back toward Amelia. “The
-most celebrated opera singer in all of London?”
“We promised musical entertainment,” she reminded him with a smile. She nodded to the footmen. “Thank you, gentlemen. You did well.”
Ravenwood continued to stare at her. “You knew Miss Azzara would contract the mumps?”
“Of course not. As I have tried to impress upon you, a smart woman plans for every exigency.”
He gestured at the footmen’s retreating backs. “And if both songstresses should have arrived?”
“Then they might have taken turns in sets, or performed a series of duets.” She steepled her fingers. “Now it will simply be an exclusive.”
Distant carriage wheels crunched upon the frozen gravel of the ducal drive.
Ravenwood turned to her in horror. “Early! I knew there was no time to change course, but cousin Blaylock can usually be counted upon to arrive a half hour late to any gathering. Under the circumstances, I would’ve supposed their pace to be even slower than usual, what with—”
“Don’t make such a kick-up. ’Tis not our guests.”
“But how can you—”
Two downstairs maids appeared at the still-open doorway, one with wringing hands and the other shooting her quick, bolstering looks.
“Peggy. Martha. Do come in.”
Both maids rushed forward, nearly tripping over each other as they curtsied. The one with the ashen face spoke first.
“I know it’s washing day, mum, and I’m much needed here, but my niece is dreadful sick—”
sick,” put in the second maid. “Hottest fever you ever did see, and her a moppet of not more than two years.”
“It’s not my day off until next week,” the first maid continued, “but Peggy’s is today, and she’s offered to switch with me—”
“No problem at all, mum, not when I been there meself—got four cherubim of my own, y’know. All been sick at one time or another.”
“If you’ll say it’s alright, that is.” Martha wrung her hands. “She’s just a baby, and as I can’t afford a doctor—Not because of you, mum! Your wages are fairer than anyone! It’s just that there’s only my mama in the house, and we had to patch up a few holes for the winter—”
Ravenwood cut a wide-eyed glance at Amelia as if he’d never heard more convoluted storytelling in his life. And why would he? She imagined this was likely to be the first direct contact he’d had with the under-servants since . . . ever. The running of a household was a woman’s job, and the running of this particular household had been her exclusive domain since their mother died, when Amelia was fourteen. If it had run like clockwork all this time, it was due to nothing less than her meticulous planning.
“Of course,” she said to the maids. “Peggy, you may report to the laundry. Martha, a hack has just arrived for you and is waiting outside. In it, you will find a medical doctor, as well as a small parcel of children’s books you might read to your invalid as she convalesces. Hurry now. Return only when the fever has broken, and not a moment sooner.”
“Thank you! Thank you!” the maid gasped as she curtsied, then fairly flew down the hall.
Ravenwood gaped at Amelia. “You cannot expect me to believe that you summoned a hack, a surgeon, and a parcel of books on the off chance that someone’s niece or nephew would take ill today.”
“Don’t be absurd. I had the news half an hour ago, and would’ve sent Martha on her way forthwith had she not been racing through the manor in search of someone to switch laundry days with her. Unless you object to the expense?”
That startled a laugh out of him. “Buy the girl a library of children’s books if that’s your wish. The only thing that surprises me is that those two maids were patently
surprised that you were not only aware of the problem, but had already put steps in place toward its solution.”
“Why should they be surprised? As mistress of this household, it is my responsibility to keep it running smoothly. They expect nothing less and, frankly, I’m hurt that you would suppose otherwise.”
“Hurt! You must know that I think you in possession of the finest mind in all of England. That doesn’t mean I cannot marvel at it from time to time. Nor should you fly into a miff if one of these days, something does not go according to plan.”
“Such as the reason you stalked in here in high dudgeon this morning?”
“I shall ignore the gibe about ‘high dudgeon’ and inform you of the problem at once, before another thirty servants march about like pawns upon your chessboard. Cousin Blaylock had declined our invitation because his wife is increasing, but I’ve just got a note saying that they’ll be arriving after all, and are only a posting-house away. They’ll be here within the hour.”
“That’s hardly a catastrophe. He’s the most kindhearted parson of my acquaintance, and his young wife is a dream.”
“Did you not hear me say she’s also increasing? Blaylock’s note says she wishes to join us for luncheon, but her stomach cannot abide the sight or smell of fish. I’m guessing salmon is one of the very things the kitchens have spent the morning preparing.”
“An exceedingly good guess.” Salmon was her brother’s favorite dish, and since he attended luncheons so infrequently, Amelia strove to always have it present when he did. “Just a moment, please.”
Mrs. Brown, the housekeeper, hurried toward them from down the corridor. She dipped a curtsey when she reached the parlor. “You rang, my lady?”
Ravenwood narrowed his eyes at Amelia. “You rang? When did you ring? I’ve been standing right next to you!”
“She rang a quarter past, I’m afraid.” The housekeeper’s cheeks flushed. “There was a small to-do with Miss Catalini’s tea, but it is all settled now.”
“You did quite right by attending to our present guests first,” Amelia thanked her warmly. “Now then. Please instruct the cook that we will substitute sirloin of beef instead of fish at luncheon today. The rest of the dishes will remain unchanged. I trust there will be no problem?”
“None at all, my lady. The beef is very nearly done already, and I must say it all smells delightful. Your guests will be quite pleased.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Brown. That is all.”
Ravenwood held up his hands. “When did you— How—?”
“The moment I read Aunt Blaylock’s letter.” Amelia gestured at the neatly stacked piles of correspondence atop the cherrywood table as she settled into her wingback chair. “Do have a seat.”
He sank into the chair opposite as if he barely registered its presence. “Is there anything you don’t know?”
Amelia laughed. “Reams of things. I haven’t the least idea how many attend Parliament, for example, or what the new issues will be for 1816. That is your domain. But I do consider it my responsibility to know everything there is to know about anything that could be considered
domain. I believe I am quite adept at the management of people and events.”
His green eyes twinkled. “You’ve certainly managed me since the day I was born.”
“I was but three years old when you were born,” she protested. “I didn’t start managing you for at least another year.”
Before her brother could reply, the underbutler strode into the parlor with a tray bearing two biscuits and a single glass of port.
Ravenwood’s shock gave way to humor. “You’re drinking spirits now? I would too if I had to play puppet-master all day in this household. In fact, it’s quite bad of you not to have at least ordered a matching glass for me. I do intend to steal one of those biscuits. Cinnamon raisin is my favorite.”
The butler presented him with the tray. “For you, my lord.”
Ravenwood cut his gaze to his sister. “You can’t be serious.”
She arched a brow. “As it happens, the staff is on standing order to bring this specific refreshment at once, should you enter the yellow parlor while I am managing my household duties.”
The butler gave her a bow. “It would have been much sooner, my lady, had we not also been in the midst of seeing to Miss Catalini. I do beg your pardon.”
“As do I. I love these biscuits.” Ravenwood took an appreciative bite. “But why a glass of port?”
She widened her eyes. “So that you feel welcome in my little cave.”
“That is to say, why so few biscuits and only one glass? Why not a dozen biscuits and the port decanter?”
She smiled wickedly. “So that you do not overstay your welcome.”
He laughed and held up the glass in salute. “To the best sister a brother could have!”
She grinned back at him, thrumming with satisfaction.
Despite his levity, no one took duty more seriously than the Duke of Ravenwood. He’d inherited the title whilst still at Eton and, like her, had spent the rest of his life devoted to exceeding expectations. In fact, the only duty she could think of that he hadn’t thrown himself into wholeheartedly was his duty to beget an heir.
Her throat dried as her guilt came back. To beget an heir, he would first require a wife. And the most logical reason for her duty-oriented brother not to have acquired a bride was because he believed his first loyalty lay with his sister. Not just because she was (slightly) older and could have been married off years ago, but because her entire life consisted of running this household. If he were to marry, that job necessarily must go to his duchess—leaving Amelia in the cold.
Rubbish, of course, but just the sort of romantical reasoning her brother would come up with. There was only one way to disabuse him of such a loyal but wrongheaded notion. It was time to put off the inevitable. She loved sharing a home with her brother, but could not keep standing in the way of his future happiness.
She had to get a husband.
But where to begin? She stretched her slippered toes toward the fire as she considered the problem anew. Her thirtieth birthday was coming up fast—the day after Christmas! Good heavens. A young lady in her twenties sounded ever so much more marriageable than a spinster in her thirties. Nothing for it. She’d simply have to bring a suitor up to scratch before Boxing Day.
She reached for a large leather volume that always rested within easy reach of her correspondence:
. The perfect resource for thinning the chaff. A fortnight should be plenty of time to make a selection.
Her brother glanced up from his second and final biscuit. “What are you reading?”