A MOST IMPROPER ALLIANCE
Two years ago, dashing Captain Samuel Breedlove disappeared without a word. But he's resurfaced in London a wealthy man, only to discover his fiancée planning to wed another. Now Samuel needs to restore his good name and expose a villain--and tempting, temptable Cilla seems an ideal accomplice.
Priscilla Burke knows the marriage of her charge, Annabelle Bailey, to the Earl of Raventhorpe must be perfect. It would be madness for her to even consider doing anything that would mar this beautiful day and destroy her fledgling career as a wedding planner. Why then is she so drawn to this irresistible stranger who insists she help him sabotage the impending affair?
But a proper lady’s desire is nothing to toy with. And a man whose character has been questioned cannot allow himself to dream of happily ever after. This not-so-innocent seduction may have unforeseen consequences…
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AWARDS AND REVIEWS
"Filled with scenes both touching and sensual, and seasoned with danger at the end, Tempting a Proper Lady is a temptation readers shouldn't resist." - The Romance Studio
"...a fabulous read...a wonderful love story that had lots of feeling and heart." - Eye on Romance
“Debra Mullins has a magical pen, the ability to draw you into the story. Within pages I found myself emotionally connected to Cilla and head over heels for Samuel!” - The Season
"Tempting a Proper Lady is one hot book! Ms. Mullins uses many different facets to bring this great story together. Between a hint of crime, passion, the ton, secret assignation, a rejected suitor, and a strong woman you cannot help but really enjoy this novel. Also with the roles that Annabelle, Black Bill, and John play, it has you hoping for more from this talented author." - Coffee Time Romance & More
"A neat little tale of conspiracy, as well as steamy sexual education of a prim and proper lady." - Fresh Fiction
Excerpt from Tempting A Proper Lady
Within the hour he would reclaim what was his.
Samuel Breedlove fisted his hands in impatience as the coach crept along behind the long line of vehicles waiting to reach the door of the country manor. Nineteen months he had waited, interminable nights where he had not expected to live through the next day. The goal to return to the life he had begun to build and the fiancée who would help him do it, had kept him alive when he had been tempted to give up.
That, and the determination to thwart his enemy by surviving what should have been his murder.
The lights of the house beckoned; there was a celebration going on tonight. Would the lamps burn as brightly when Samuel darkened the doorway? Would Annabelle throw herself into his arms, blue eyes flooding with tears of joy? Or would Annabelle’s father order the footmen to toss him out the door for disrupting the party?
He was betting on the first outcome. He and Annabelle had pledged to wed almost two years ago. She had wanted a husband, and he had needed a wife to help him realize his dreams of children and family. He was certain that once he explained where he had been all this time, she would be more than happy to acknowledge his prior claim for her hand. And certainly her parents, the closest thing he had ever known to family, would support him in the endeavor.
The coach came to a stop, and a glance out the window confirmed they were close enough for him to traverse the rest of the drive on foot. He jerked open the door and climbed out, the rasp of his boot soles on the hard dirt grating against the edginess that had plagued him since he had made this decision.
“Are you certain about this, Samuel?”
He glanced up at his friend and ally, John Ready, who served as coachman tonight. “I made a promise, John. And you know I always keep my word.”
The great hall of Nevarton Chase had never looked more spectacular.
Cilla Burke allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction as she surveyed the ambiance she and twenty servants had created. The polished wooden floor gleamed beneath the light of the crystal chandelier, and cheerful garlands of flowers wrapped around the columns that encircled the room. The doors to the terrace had been left open so that the cool evening breeze could alleviate the heat from the crush of bodies. At the moment the musicians played a lively country dance, and peals of laughter overrode the murmur of conversation as young ladies promenaded with their partners.
Once she, too, had been one of those carefree misses, fresh and innocent and longing for the day she would be married. Bittersweet regret seasoned the memories. If she had only known…
Rather than being the belle of the ball, she was now in charge of arranging the affair—a paid employee whose future depended on whether or not Society considered Annabelle Bailey’s wedding to be the ultimate social event of the Season. It was no longer shameful for a woman to earn a day’s wage for a day’s work, and her husband’s death had left her with very few choices. Anyway, she had no desire to return to the life of a debutante whose survival depended on ensnaring the right husband. How could she possibly, when the disaster of her own marriage had proven her instincts to be flawed?
Sensing the imminent melancholy lurking behind her thoughts, she forced herself to focus on the present. She was determined that Annabelle’s wedding would be a stunning success—both for the bride and for Cilla’s business reputation. Tonight’s engagement party should set the tone.
“There you are, Cilla.” Dolly Bailey, her employer, huffed to a stop beside her. Dolly’s statuesque figure had been squeezed into a dress of creamy azure, showing off her blond hair, blue eyes and generous bosom. Matching blue diamonds sparkled at her ears and throat, glittering with every breath she took. “The butler has informed me that we may not have enough champagne for all the guests.”
Cilla frowned. “How can that be? I made certain that we had enough for fifty people—”
“Fifty? No, no, dear. Seventy. I told you I sent out a few invitations of my own.”
Cold dread seeped into her stomach. “No, you did not tell me that.”
“Of course I did.” Dolly smiled, her dimples flashing as her gaze followed the dancers. “I remember discussing the matter with you yesterday while we were at the Archer picnic.”
Cilla let out a slow, quiet breath. “Dolly, I did not attend the Archer picnic. I stayed behind, do you not recall? To help the housekeeper count the linens that had just arrived.”
“Oh.” Dolly’s brows beetled. “Then who did I tell? Oh, perhaps it was Annabelle.”
“Perhaps it was.” Cilla made herself smile with calm assurance even while a voice inside her head screamed in frustration. Annabelle would never have thought to pass on the message—not unless it affected herself, that is. “I will go discuss the matter with Evers.”
“Bless you, Cilla. That’s a wonderful idea.” Dolly’s eyes grew misty as Annabelle danced by in the arms of her fiancé, the Earl of Raventhorpe. “My baby is getting married, and to an earl of all things. She’s going to be a countess.” Dolly withdrew a delicate lace handkerchief from inside her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. “Who could have imagined such a thing when I gave birth to her so many years ago in a one room farmhouse in Virginia?”
“You can be very proud of your daughter.” Cilla patted Dolly’s arm. “No mother could ask for more.”
“If her daddy hadn’t discovered that huge coal mine under the south field, none of this would have happened.” Dolly sniffed into the hankie, then blew her nose rather loudly.
Cilla managed to keep her polite smile in place. No amount of lessons about English society had succeeded in tempering the Baileys’ casual comportment.
The orchestra came to the end of a waltz. Then instead of continuing, the musicians remained silent as Virgil Bailey climbed the two steps leading to the terrace and stood on the landing before the open doors. He held up his hands to silence the buzz of conversation.
“Good evening, my friends, and welcome.” He sent a genial smile around the room. “Tonight we celebrate a very special occasion. If my dear wife would come up here and my daughter, Annabelle? And you too, Lord Raventhorpe.”
“It’s time!” Dolly fluffed her hair and tugged at her dress. “Do I look all right?”
“You look wonderful.”
Dolly’s radiant smile faded. “Oh, dear. The champagne…”
“We will use wine if necessary and tell everyone it is an American custom.” Cilla shooed Dolly towards the steps where her husband awaited. “Go on now. They’re waiting for you.”
“Thank you,” Dolly whispered, gratitude shining in her eyes. Then she hurried across the expanse of the hall.
Cilla quickly turned away and headed for the double doors leading to the hallway. She had worked so hard to make Annabelle’s engagement party the premier event of the Season. Nothing could ruin it, not if she hoped to earn the reputation she craved. She had no idea if there was enough wine in the cellar for twenty additional people, but she would consult with Evers and come up with a solution. Efficiency was what people paid her for, and she always made certain they got their money’s worth.
Servants balancing trays with glasses of champagne streamed into the great hall from the servants’ stairs as Cilla headed for the main doors. She started to step out into the hallway and found her path blocked by a stranger.
Though he wore sophisticated evening black, something about him read ‘untamed.’ Was it his ink black hair, slightly too long for fashion? The sun-browned skin of his face and hands? His powerful build, made more impressive by the elegant cut of his clothing? Or maybe it was the go-to-the-devil look in his dark eyes?
A dart of pure feminine appreciation shot through her. Thrilled her. Annoyed her.
“Pardon me.” He brushed past her with a brusque nod of his head, the contact brief but potent. She could not look away as he swept a glass of champagne from the tray of a nearby servant and continued to make his way to the front of the crowd.
Who was he? The accent might have been American. A friend of the Baileys’?
Evers appeared in the doorway, two footmen at his side, breaking her focus on the mysterious man.
“Ah, Evers, Mrs. Bailey is concerned about the champagne.”
"Where is he?” the butler asked, scanning the room.
“The American. He pushed past Thomas before we could stop him. Knocked the poor boy down.”
“What?” She whipped her head around, searching for that tall dark form. Men clad in evening black thronged the room from wall to wall, making it impossible to spot just one.
“He has no invitation,” Thomas said, rubbing his swollen lip.
“He demanded to see Miss Annabelle,” Evers added. “He was most adamant on the matter.”
“Find him,” she snapped at Thomas. The young man nodded and plunged into the morass of people. She looked at the butler. “Send for more help. The more people we have looking for this interloper, the more likely we are to find him. But for heaven’s sake, keep it quiet. We do not want to ruin Annabelle’s night.”
“I will rally the footmen belowstairs.”
A servant with an empty tray passed by them, reminding her of why she had come seeking him to begin with. “Also, Evers, send someone to see if we have enough wine in the cellar for twenty people. Apparently we will not have enough champagne.”
He gave a nod. “Yes, Mrs. Burke.”
With the matter delegated, Cilla turned her attention to this new crisis. Her blood ran cold at the notion of a man breaking into the Bailey household on such an important night. Not only was Annabelle Bailey beautiful, but she was the heiress to her parents’ substantial coal mining fortune. What could this man want? Did he intend to abduct the girl? Something worse?
Whatever his nefarious plans, he must be stopped. It was not often an American with Annabelle’s humble beginnings married a peer of the realm. Nothing must interfere with the girl’s triumph.
She worked her way through the crush, nearly invisible in the plain gray satin that marked her as beneath notice. Though she had known some of these people since childhood, she was only a paid employee now. Those that did not know her looked right past her. Those that did politely glanced away, as if sparing her the embarrassment of acknowledging her fall from social grace.
Once their remoteness would have stung. Now she simply did not have time for such nonsense. If this wedding came off as the social success she anticipated, she would have the reputation to build a business assisting debutantes in planning their wedding celebrations. She would be financially independent, never again reliant on a man to provide for her welfare. Her late husband had taught her that harsh lesson.
And she certainly would not allow a man to ruin the engagement party she had so painstakingly planned.
Thomas said the trespasser had demanded to see Annabelle. The Baileys were even now standing before the garden doors, waiting for the servants to finish distributing the champagne. If she were the intruder, where would be the best possible spot to get near the prospective bride?
She directed her gaze towards the columns on either side of the steps. Ah, there he was, beside the left one—hidden from some of the crowd but with a clear view of Annabelle. He watched the lovely blond with ferocious intensity, his fingers clenched around the delicate wine glass. He definitely looked like trouble.
But trouble was Cilla’s specialty.
“I don’t have it with me.”
American. She had been right. She would know the accent anywhere. “Perhaps you might tell me your name then? I will check it against the guest list.”
He scowled down at her, then leaned forward with graceful menace. “I don’t think you want to do this.”
“Indeed?” From the corner of her eye, Cilla observed the two footmen closing in. “You forced your way in here. Why?”
“That is my concern.”
“No, it is my concern when you strike one of the servants and attempt to disrupt the evening.” She signaled to the footmen, who aligned themselves behind her.
His eyes narrowed. “Listen, Miss—”
“Mrs. Burke then.” He smiled at her—much, she thought, as a shark might smile at a floundering fish. “I’ve come a long way to see Annabelle, and nothing is going to stop me. Not these fellows and certainly not a pint-sized lady like yourself, no matter how much gumption you’ve got to stand on.”
Cilla narrowed her eyes, both flattered by his assessment of her and infuriated by it at the same time. “What do you want with Annabelle?”
Nearby, Virgil Bailey cleared his throat, preparing to make his toast. She was running out of time.
The intruder shot a hard look at the group on the steps. “Annabelle and I go way back.”
“What do you mean?” Cilla persisted. “Who are you?”
“Am I supposed to know that name?”
His lips thinned. “Guess not.”
Virgil’s voice rang out across the spacious room. “If you would all quiet down now… My wife and I have waited for this day ever since our little girl was born.” Dolly sniffed loudly, and Virgil patted her arm in comfort without looking away from his audience. “So raise your glasses, everyone, and join me in congratulating my daughter Annabelle on her engagement to the Earl of Raventhorpe.”
“I do not care who you are or why you are here,” Cilla hissed. “I demand you leave the premises immediately—or I will have you removed.”
The banked rage in the look he gave her nearly made her draw back. “I don’t mind fighting for what’s mine. And Annabelle ismine. I’m her fiancé.” And before she could stop him, he stepped from behind the column into sight of the entire assembly.
Samuel expected the footmen to come after him. But it came down to what mattered more to the little firebrand who had tried to eject him from the party—the scandal of an uninvited guest causing a scene or a brawl in the middle of the party. He was banking on scandal being the lesser of two evils.
At first the group on the steps didn’t notice him. He took in the sight like a thirsty man sighting water, more moved at seeing them than he liked to admit. Virgil and Dolly, who had welcomed him into their home like a son, allowing him to escape the misery of his own childhood for their warm hearth many a time. Virgil had taught him how to be a man, and Dolly had held him when his mother had died. Annabelle, pretty and sweet, his constant companion in youth, who had become his fiancée in adulthood. She stood proudly beside her parents now. And on her other side…
Rage roared through him as he watched the wily snake smile with smug possessiveness at Annabelle. First the bastard had left him to die on that deserted rock in the middle of the Caribbean, and now he thought to steal Samuel’s bride. Samuel clenched his jaw, his body vibrating with the force of anger almost too volatile to control.
But control it he did. There was no way he could bring Raventhorpe to justice on the marooning. He had no evidence, no clout in the British justice system—not when pitted against an earl’s influence. But he could spoil Raventhorpe’s little engagement. He could get Annabelle back and prevent an innocent girl from marrying the man who had tried to murder him.
This time Raventhorpe would not win.
Murmurs of congratulations accompanied the raised glasses as the guests joined in the toast. Annabelle pinkened, her blue eyes sparkling as she shyly smiled at Raventhorpe, touching her glass to his.
And Raventhorpe smiled back.
Samuel took another step forward, but someone grabbed his arm. He looked down into the earnest face of the redoubtable Mrs. Burke.
“Do not do this,” she hissed. “Have some respect for Annabelle. Spare her this scandal.”
“She accepted me first. Any damage I do to her reputation, I will repair.” He shook her hand off his arm and came to the base of the steps, raising his glass high. “A toast! To the engagement of Annabelle Bailey—to Captain Samuel Breedlove.” He drank deeply as gasps echoed around him.
Annabelle paled when she saw him. The glass slipped from her fingers and shattered on the steps. “Samuel!”
Astonishment flickered across Raventhorpe’s face, but then he quickly recovered and narrowed his eyes.
“Samuel!” Dolly gasped. “What—"
“Samuel Breedlove.” Virgil’s fingers tightened around his glass as his expression darkened. “What in God’s name do you think you are doing?”
“I told Annabelle I would return for her.” Samuel met Annabelle’s gaze, her blue eyes so familiar after so long apart. “And so I have.”
"So you have,” Annabelle whispered, her expression shocked. She took a step forward, crushing the broken glass with her delicate slippers. The earl caught her arm, bringing her to a halt.
“Have a care, my dear, lest you injure yourself.” Raventhorpe pulled her back to his side and met Samuel’s gaze with the cool deliberation of a coiled rattler. “Have you no shame, Breedlove? How dare you show yourself here!”
Samuel indicated Annabelle as a servant scurried forward to collect the pieces of broken glass on the floor. “I must thank you for watching over my fiancée for me, Raventhorpe. As you know, I have been indisposed these past two years.”
“You sound as if you are making an accusation, captain.”
“Maybe I am.”
Fervent whispers rippled through the crowd, though their audience did not appear to bother Raventhorpe a whit. “Be on your way,” the earl demanded. “You are disturbing a private party.”
“I came for Annabelle.”
“You abandoned her,” Raventhorpe said.
“I did not abandon her.”
“You were betrothed to a poor farmer’s daughter, but you came back when you heard about her change in fortunes.”
Gasps. More whispers.
“That’s a lie.” The servant finished clearing the glass and hurried away, allowing Samuel to put his foot on the first stair toward Annabelle. “Shall I tell the lady what really happened?”
Raventhorpe shifted Annabelle behind him and came down a step to block Samuel’s way. The crowd shuffled, murmured. “Save your falsehoods for some other maid, Breedlove. You have lost her. Accept it.”
Samuel leaned closer to the earl’s face. “Never.”
Raventhorpe shoved at his shoulder, pushing him back a pace. “Leave. Or shall we have the footmen escort you?”
Samuel shoved back. “You first.”
Ladies cried out, and gentlemen moved protectively in front of them.
Mrs. Burke rushed forward but then stopped as Virgil cut bodily between the two men, putting an end to the scuffle. “Enough of this foolishness. Haven’t the two of you given these folks enough to chew on?”
“I must speak to you, sir,” Samuel said. “I suspect you have been told lies about me.”
“Lies, is it?” Virgil looked him long and hard in the eye. “I reckon we’ve all got something to say about this. Best get it done since you already wrecked the party.”
“Throw him out,” Raventhorpe hissed. “Has he not done enough damage to your family, Bailey?”
“My family, my decision,” Virgil said. “Mrs. Burke, you take Samuel and wait for us in the library. Lord Raventhorpe and I will be along once we’ve said good night to the guests.”
“Me?” Mrs. Burke protested.
“Please, Mrs. Burke.” The tension lines around Virgil’s mouth indicated the strain he battled. “You’re so good at handling these sorts of things.”
“Very well,” she conceded.
“And Annabelle?” Samuel asked.
“She’s none of your concern,” Raventhorpe said.
“She is my fiancée. That makes her my concern.”
“My ring on her finger says otherwise.”
Behind them, Annabelle stood pale and silent, lips quivering.
“Enough!” Virgil scowled as the crowd’s low murmur of speculation became a dull roar. “Samuel, to the library. Raventhorpe, with me.”
Samuel glared at the earl. “I would prefer that Lord Raventhorpe adjourn to the library as well.”
“Some of the guests are friends of Lord Raventhorpe’s,” Virgil replied. “He has to say his fancy good-byes. It’s what they do here in England.”
“Then I will wait here.”
“No.” Virgil leaned closer to Samuel and lowered his voice. “You’re on thin ice, my boy. Lucky for you I’m curious enough to hear your side of the story before I toss you out of my house.”
Samuel had expected more sympathy from his surrogate father. He opened his mouth to speak, but Virgil continued, “This is England, not America, and these folks use gossip like a weapon. I reckon you’ve given them enough to jabber about tonight, don’t you? If you still care for Annabelle like you claim, you’ll do what I ask.”
Samuel glanced at Annabelle, her face bleak and stark with shock. Then he looked at the crowd around them. The bright eyes, the snickers, the derisive grins hurriedly hidden behind hands and fans. Like a pack of wild dogs, they scented blood in the air.
Virgil was right. Best they handle the rest of this behind closed doors.
Ignoring Raventhorpe’s glittering gaze, he gave a respectful nod to Virgil and then turned to look at the woman appointed his keeper. “Mrs. Burke, kindly lead the way to the library.”
Her mouth a thin line of disapproval, she gave a curt nod. “This way, Captain Breedlove.” The crowd parted before her as she led him back towards the double doors, her spine rigid, her skirts swaying with simmering temper.
Virgil raised his voice to the crowd. “As you can see, an urgent family matter has arisen, so I regret that we will have to cut the evening short. Thank you all for coming.”
The clank of glasses being collected by the servants and the rising volume of excited voices filled the great hall as the guests began to organize their exit. Samuel paused in the doorway to look back at Annabelle. Dolly held her distraught daughter in a protective embrace and tried to urge her towards the terrace doors, away from curious eyes.
He’d hated to hurt her, but there had been no other way.
“Captain?” Mrs. Burke waited several paces down the hall, her expression one of impatience.
The Baileys had not ejected him from the house. If he had any hope of breaking Annabelle’s engagement to Raventhorpe, better he continue to play according to their rules. Slowly he moved to join her as the rest of the crowd wedged themselves through the great hall doors and then flowed towards the cloakroom.
She waited until he had reached her before she turned to continue with her duty. He glanced back to see Raventhorpe and Virgil standing just outside the great hall, bidding their guests good-bye. Raventhorpe took the hand of an ancient dowager and bent over it, then looked up and met Samuel’s gaze. The fury and hatred there reaffirmed that Raventhorpe was the same merciless snake who had dumped him unconscious on that tiny island in the Caribbean.
All the more reason to wrest Annabelle from his clutches.
Copyright © 2010 Debra Mullins
All rights reserved .