Eliza Hammond has always been quiet and reserved—hardly the best qualities for finding the man of her dreams and living happily ever after. A new heiress, Eliza is financially secure, courtesy of her aunt’s fortune, but even great wealth has its drawbacks since every greedy, fortune-hunting bachelor suddenly finds Eliza irresistible.
To help her best friend, Violet takes Eliza’s romantic dilemma into her own hands, enlisting the social skills of her brother-in-law, Lord Christopher “Kit” Winter. Kit helps transform Eliza into a stunning belle, certain to attract a worthy beau. There’s just one problem: Eliza has always been head over heels in love with Kit, the very man who is trying to find her a husband! But during Eliza’s sometimes-comic extreme makeover, and with a few secret love lessons from Kit on the side, sparks—and passionate kisses—begin to fly. Kit soon finds himself completely overcome by an all-consuming desire for Eliza. But if he waits too long to recognize his love for her, he risks losing his fair lady forever.Read an Excerpt
New York Times Extended List Bestseller, premiering at #32.
USA Today Bestseller, debuting at #52 and spending three weeks in the top 150 bestselling books.
Borders Group Mass Market Single Title Paperback Bestseller’s list, appearing at #8 for the week of June 3, 2006.
"A perfect ending to this delightful trilogy. I absolutely loved the
ending...and highly recommend all three books." --Tammie Ard, Fresh Fiction
"A tale that's steamy and emotionally satisfying. This is one author
on the verge of stardom."
--Kathe Robin, Romantic Times Bookclub
adored every scene throughout this story. Witty and a pure delight to the senses.
I'll definitely be adding the entire trilogy to my keeper bookshelf and awaiting
Ms. Warren's next contribution to the literary world."
-Chrissy Dionne, Romance Junkies
London, February 1820
This business of acquiring a husband is going to be far from pleasant, Eliza Hammond decided from her place on the saffron-and-white striped sofa in the upstairs family drawing room of Raeburn House.
Considering this would be her fifth Season——a lowering realization indeed——she knew she would need all the assistance she could get, despite the immense fortune her late aunt had quite unexpectedly left to her only six weeks ago. At least she knew she would be able to count on the steadfast support of her dear friend, Violet Brantford Winter, Duchess of Raeburn. Perhaps with Violet’s assistance, the process would not be as dreadful as she feared. Then again, thinking of the assorted ne’er-do-wells and fortune hunters already vying for her hand, perhaps it would.
“There is Mr. Newcomb,” Violet stated as she reviewed the current selection of Eliza’s prospective suitors. “He seems a very pleasant sort of gentleman with a genuine interest in the arts.”
“Yes, he was most attentive when we happened upon each other at the gallery the other day,” Eliza agreed, recalling the man’s even features and straight auburn hair, a shade that had put her in mind of a glossy-coated Irish setter. “He demonstrated a definite command of the great masters. Perhaps he has an interest in historical subjects as well.”
“What he has is an interest in card playing, followed a close second by a love of the dice,” interrupted a deep, smooth male voice that never failed to send a pleasurable tingle down Eliza’s spine no matter how firmly she tried to suppress it.
She shifted her gaze toward Lord Christopher Winter, better known to his family and friends as Kit. Tall, broad-shouldered and ruggedly lean, he sat relaxed in a leisurely all-male sprawl upon a nearby chair. Having spent the past twenty minutes eating his way through a stack of small watercress, cucumber and chicken sandwiches, he leaned forward now to conduct a perusal of the dessert tray.
A lock of his dark wavy brown hair fell across his handsome forehead as he selected a pair of lime tarts and a thin slice of rum cake. As he transferred the sweets to his plate, he got a smudge of whipped cream on one of his knuckles. Eliza’s stomach tightened as she watched him lick it away.
She forced her gaze down to her shoes. Kit was Violet’s brother-in-law and nothing more, she reminded herself. Certainly he was nothing more to her. True, she had once nursed a secret infatuation for him but such silliness was long since over and done. During the nearly year and half he had been away traveling on the Continent, she had ruthlessly purged him from her heart. And by the time he returned to England this Christmas past, she had long since grown used to giving him scarcely a thought.
Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t admire him for the gorgeous male specimen he was. And Kit Winter, with his beautiful, lazy-lidded green and gold eyes, sensuous lips and infectiously charming smile, was a gorgeous man indeed. One with an infamously prodigious appetite that seemed to make no impact at all upon his trim, well-muscled physique.
He bit into one of the tarts from his plate, a tiny smile of gustatory delight on his lips as he settled back into his chair. Engrossed in the confection, he seemed utterly oblivious to the volley of disappointment he had just lobbed into the room.
Violet shot him a mighty frown. “What do you mean by that remark, Kit?”
He swallowed and glanced upward. “Hmm?” He took a drink of tea, then politely patted his mouth with his napkin. “Oh, about Newcomb, do you mean?”
“Yes, of course about Newcomb. Of whom else have Eliza and I been conversing?”
“Well, there’s no need to come up cross, Vi. Just thought I ought to give you fair warning the chap is close to being dipped. Last I heard, he lost twenty thousand quid to Plimpton playing high-stakes whist and his luck hasn’t turned for the good since.”
Violet and Eliza released a pair of mutual sighs.
“If that is the case, then he is out,” Violet declared, turning her bespectacled blue-green gaze upon Eliza. “You certainly don’t want to take an inveterate gambler to husband.”
Eliza silently agreed and contented herself by sipping her tea.
“There is Sir Silas Jones,” Violet continued. “He sent you that sweet nosegay of hothouse roses last week. I hear he comes from a lovely part of Kent. Owns an estate that produces a most bountiful harvest of cherries and apples each year. Has quite the way with plants, I am given to understand.”
“That’s not all he’s good at planting,” murmured Kit as he polished off the last of the sweets on his plate and leaned forward for more.
Violet angled her attractively coiffured blond head. “I suppose by that you mean there is something wrong with him as well?”
“Depends upon your point of view. Some might say there’s nothing wrong with him at all.” He ate a guinea-sized crumpet topped with a generous spoonful of gooseberry jam, then silently held out his empty Meissen cup for more tea.
Without pause, Violet lifted the heavy silver teapot from a matching silver tray and poured. A delicate tendril of steam spiraled off the surface of the beverage for a moment before Kit brought the cup to his lips.
“So?” Violet encouraged when he failed to say more.
Kit set his teacup onto its saucer with a faint clink. “Man’s a womanizer. Has six by-blows by four different women and those are only the ones he acknowledges. One might say Jones is a man who likes to plow a field.”
Eliza felt her cheeks grow pink. A small guffaw escaped the duchess before Violet recovered herself.
“Kit,” Violet said in reproof. “Might I remind you there are ladies present, myself included. That is no kind of talk for the drawing room.”
He forced an irreverent grin from his lips. “Sorry. You are right, of course. My apologies, ladies.”
“Nevertheless, I am glad to learn that Sir Silas is not a man to whom my dear friend should direct her time or attentions.” Violet tapped a thoughtful nail against the scrolled sofa arm. “Of the other gentlemen who have recently extended their regards to Eliza, we know Viscount Coyle and Mr. Washburn are not to be received, the both of them known fortune hunters forever on the lookout for a likely heiress to replenish their pocketbooks.”
“What of Lord Luffensby?” Eliza said. “He sent me that very pleasant book of sonnets.” Wordsworth, she recalled with pleasure, the poet one of her favorites.
“Of course. I only met him once and very briefly but he struck me as a most amiable man. Very considerate and gently spoken.”
A soft but unmistakable snort erupted from Kit.
Violet shot him another look, one of exasperation this time. “Pray do not tell me there is something amiss with Lord Luffensby too? Surely not. I know his cousin and she gave me to understand that he has a most comfortable income and no predilections for the usual vices.”
“No, not the usual ones, that’s for certain.”
Violet waited for a long moment. “Oh, do go on before Eliza and I both expire of curiosity.”
“I am not sure I ought to say. As you already reminded me, there are ladies present.” Kit paused, glanced at Eliza. “Unmarried ladies.”
“Well, dear heavens, what is it? Surely it cannot be so terrible Eliza cannot be allowed to hear. And it isn’t as if she is a miss just out of the schoolroom.”
Kit tapped a considering finger against his lips. “He has a nickname among certain fellows. Lord Poofensby.”
Poofensby? Eliza frowned. Was Kit referring to the man’s wardrobe? Luffensby did tend toward being a bit of a dandy but nothing too extreme. She looked over at Violet, whose brows were also furrowed in confusion.
“I am sorry but you’ll have to be clearer,” Violet said.
“Clearer?” Kit rolled his eyes, then heaved a beleaguered sigh. “You know, for a woman who reads Greek and Latin and speaks five languages, you can sometimes be remarkably ignorant.”
“There is no need to be insulting. Just say it out. I am sure it cannot be so very bad.”
“All right. He . . . um . . . has a liking for men.”
“Well, what is so remarkable about that? A great many gentlemen enjoy the company of others of their sex. I don’t see why you are making such a——Oh.” Violet broke off, her eyebrows rising. “Oh! Oooh.”
Eliza looked between them, still not entirely understanding the message that had just been passed. Then suddenly she remembered a bit of text she had read once in one of her books on ancient history about men who cared for other men in an amorous way. She had found the notion quite astonishing at the time, yet never considered such things might still go on. Certainly not here in present-day England!
A fresh blush stole over her cheeks.
“Quite so.” Kit stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankle. “Not the sort of fellow likely to give you a family, assuming that is what you want?”
A family, Eliza thought, was exactly what she wanted. It was the single most important reason she had decided to find a husband and wed. Her shoulders dipped, her spirits disheartened by the entire conversation.
“Well, who else is there?” Violet withdrew a white silk handkerchief from her dress pocket, then removed her spectacles and began to polish the lenses. “You have received so many bouquets and trinkets, there must be someone suitable in the bunch.”
“But there is not,” Eliza bemoaned. “Oh, Violet, don’t you see, it is simply no use. They are all of them unsuitable in one way or another. Either they are after my fortune or they have some dreadful personal difficulty they wish to conceal through a convenient marriage.”
Violet slipped her eyeglasses back on, then reached out and patted the top of Eliza’s hand. “Now, do not let this discourage you. The Season has not even begun yet. There is no telling all the eligible bachelors who will be arriving in the city over the next few weeks. Men who would give their eyeteeth to have you for their wife.”
“Perhaps a single rotten molar but no more.” Eliza shook her head. “No, the facts must be faced. The sad truth is that no suitable gentlemen wanted me before my aunt died and none of them wants me now. Some days I wish my aunt had not gotten angry with Cousin Philip and cut him out of the will. Some days poverty seems a remarkably easier choice.”
“Poverty is never easy and do not spout such self-defeating nonsense. I know you would never wish to go back to that life. You lived under that old woman’s miserly thumb far too many years——forgive my harsh sentiments toward the dead——not to enjoy a little comfort now. If anyone deserves her fortune, it is you.”
”Maybe, but it does not seem to be doing me much good.”
“What you need is a mentor,” Violet said. “Someone who knows Society and could smooth your way. Teach you how to be easier in company, have more confidence so your shyness does not leave you tongue-tied and silent among others, unable to show what a lovely personality you possess.”
Violet paused, tapped a thumb against the knee of her elegant lavender merino wool day dress. “As you will recall, I once had the same problem as you. So shy in public I could barely string a pair of words together. Then during those insane months when I switched places with Jeannette and married Adrian in her stead, well, I had no choice but to change my ways. Why, if it had not been for Kit——“ She broke off and stared at her brother-in-law for a long, pregnant moment. Suddenly a merry laugh bubbled from her lips. “Well, of course! Why did I not think of it before?”
“Think of what?” Eliza asked.
“Of you and Kit. Why, it is perfect. Kit will help you find a worthy husband.”
“I’ll do what!” Kit jerked upright in his seat, his cup rattling precariously on its saucer. Only his innate sense of balance kept him from spilling hot tea all over his fashionably tight buckskin pantaloons. In no mood to risk a burn, especially in so vulnerable an area of his anatomy, he steadied the china and set it onto a nearby side table.
Eliza Hammond, he noticed, looked as shocked as he felt, her pale lips parted, her slender jaw slack with obvious astonishment.
He straightened his waistcoat with a firm double-handed tug. “I must have misheard you. Sounded like you just suggested I play matchmaker for Miss Hammond here.”
“Not matchmaker, no. Eliza and I will be able to locate gentlemen aplenty, I suspect. Your role will be more in the way of mentor, just as I said. You can help vet her prospective suitors, but more importantly you can do for her what you did for me. Teach her how to be more confident in company. Give her techniques and ways of interacting in Society so she need not feel so reticent.”
“Well, I hardly think I’m the proper one to help,” he sputtered, anxious to put a stop to Violet’s wild notions before they had a chance to propagate any further.
“But of course you are,” his earnest-eyed sister-in-law stated. “You are the very best person to help. For one, you are family, so there will be no need to worry about you telling the world all the details of our little project. For another, you know absolutely everyone in the Ton. If you aren’t friends with them already, you know someone else who is. Plus, you hear all the best tidbits, as you have so eloquently demonstrated this afternoon.”
“I hardly know everyone. Been out of the country these many months past, I’ll remind you. Even now I am catching up.” His lids narrowed accusingly. “And I hope you are not implying that I am a gossip.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Violet assured. “You are just friendly and popular, that is all. People tell you things, things neither Eliza nor I will ever be in a position to find out. Which gives us a great advantage since you will be able to weed out the fortune hunters and blackguards and leave only decent gentlemen from which Eliza may chose. That way she will be able to concentrate on deciding if she feels genuine affection for any one particular man without having to worry that he might have unscrupulous motives. No, I cannot think of a person better suited to help our dear Eliza than you.”
Kit restrained the pained grimace that rose to his face. If he had known tossing out a few opinions about a couple of fellows would provoke such dire results, he would have kept his blasted mouth shut. Should have kept eating, that’s what he should have done. Kept eating and kept silent.
Reminded of food and suddenly in need of sustenance, he plucked another tart off the serving tray and popped it into his mouth, the delectable flavors of raspberry and sweet cream taking the edge off his distress.
“I am not a project,” Eliza said in a low, stiff voice.
“What is that, dear?” Violet questioned, turning her head toward her friend.
“I said I am not a project, as you referred to me earlier. Neither of you need feel duty-bound to take pity upon me. I shall find some way to manage for myself.” Short speech done, Eliza lowered her eyes to her lap, fingers linked together, her knuckles squeezed tight enough to turn them white around the edges.
Kit ate another tart, surprised at Eliza’s small burst of outraged pride. He hadn’t realized she was capable of such fortitude, quiet little brown wren that she was. In fact, she’d spoken more this afternoon than he was used to hearing her say in an entire day, not that he ever really spent enough time around her to be certain how much talking she normally did. Yet she had always struck him as one of those plain, reserved women who tended to walk into a room and fade from notice two minutes later. The quintessential wallflower. And a bluestocking, to make matters worse. Only now she was a rich bluestocking wallflower and Violet expected him to make her over into a glorious swan.
Perhaps giving birth to her latest child four months before had done something to disrupt Violet’s usual good sense. Maybe if he phrased his arguments just right, she would see reason and back away from this ludicrous plan.
Violet shifted toward Eliza. “Now, do not ruffle up so. You know I meant no insult and neither of us pities you. Do we, Kit?” She gave him a stare that brooked no opposition.
“Of course not,” he chimed.
“I apologize if my choice of words was poor,” Violet went on. “But Eliza, even you admit that you are shy and do not feel easy in Society. And while there is no disgrace in such behavior, it does make it more difficult for others to see your true beauty. Particularly gentlemen, who——let us be frank——tend to be led by their eyes and other unmentionable portions of their anatomy.”
“Their brains, do you mean?” Kit remarked, unable to restrain the quip.
A tiny smile curved across the duchess’s youthful lips, her eyes twinkling behind their lenses. “Hmm, just so, for we all know that is what men use to think with when they are around an attractive female.”
And that, Kit thought, is precisely the problem.
Eliza Hammond was not what any man would describe as a stunner. It wasn’t that she was homely——quite the opposite, if one took the trouble to look closely enough——it was just that she did nothing to enhance what attributes she did possess.
Instead of looking thick and lustrous, her brown hair appeared ordinary, yanked back into a boring knot at the nape of her neck. Although unblemished by the sun, her white skin often seemed sallow and wan. Quite likely she possessed a pleasant figure, but who could tell since she hid her slender body inside one shapeless, hideous dress after another——though he supposed her nip-cheese aunt could be blamed in large measure for the state of Eliza’s meager wardrobe, now dyed black for mourning.
She had good eyes, though, bright and luminous despite their soft, unremarkable gray color. And lovely bone structure, with a classical sweep to her jaw and a cute, finely bridged nose.
Still, turning Eliza from a frump into a fashion plate would be a truly monumental achievement. He nearly sighed aloud at the idea.
This scheme is doomed to fail.
This plan will never work, Eliza railed inside her head.
What was Violet thinking to suggest such a ridiculous thing? Imagine wanting to toss her and Kit together as mentor and pupil? She could not do it. Would not do it even if he had once helped Violet overcome her diffident nature and step comfortably into her role as wife to one of the most powerful aristocrats in England. Besides, Kit obviously did not wish to help her. She could see it in his eyes. The doubt. And yes, the pity, no matter that he said otherwise.
“Please, Violet,” she implored, “I am sure Lord Christopher has other, more important things to do with his time than spend it instructing me.”
“I cannot imagine what that might be. Kit was just telling me the other day how bored he is with the same old round of amusements and so few people yet in Town. Is that not so, Kit?”
“I believe I confessed to feeling a slight ennui but that does not mean I have nothing to do. Somehow, I manage to fill my days quite admirably.”
“But only think how much more admirably your time would be employed assisting Eliza. With her residing here, it will be an easy thing for you to teach her.”
He wiped his fingers on a linen napkin, dusting off crumbs. “If you’ll remember, I’m in the process of locating bachelor’s quarters and moving my things in there. If I don’t find something soon, they’ll be nothing decent left to rent.”
“Maybe you could put that plan on hold for a while. I mean, would it really be so dreadful if you stayed here with the family for a little while longer? You mentioned that you’ve nearly gone through your quarterly allowance again, and I know how you detest applying to Adrian for additional funds.”
“Remind me in future to stop telling you things, Vi. You remember far too much, far too well.”
Violet sent him a sympathetic smile. “I also remember that you will be coming into your own money on your birthday this August when you receive your grandfather’s bequest. Until then, why don’t you simply remain here at Raeburn House and economize a bit? Only think how easy it will be for you and Eliza to work together. A few hours in the morning, then you can each go about your usual routine. You’ll scarcely notice the difference.”
She would notice the difference, Eliza thought. Until now, living in the same abode with Kit had been tolerable due in great measure to the sheer enormity of the townhouse. Her and Kit’s paths rarely crossed except for the occasional meal en famille and the infrequent afternoon visit with Violet, such as now. But to be daily in his company? To have Kit, of all people, coaching her on ways to overcome her shyness . . . well, it seemed too intimate, far too personal.
Despite knowing that her infatuation for him had waned, she wasn’t certain she would feel comfortable being so near him so often. Yet would she not be a fool to refuse his help? Assuming, of course, that he agreed to help. Assuming she even wished him to.
He sat back again in his chair, obviously wrestling with his thoughts as he rubbed a knuckle against his expressive lips. “I suppose I could stay and assist Miss Hammond.”
Violet clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, I knew you would see the merit of my idea.”
“But only if she wishes me to do so, that is,” Kit added.
Eliza and Kit’s eyes met, his clear hazel irises appearing more green than gold today, the shade enhanced by the elegantly tailored bottle green cutaway coat he wore.
Her pulse skipped at such scrutiny. What could she say? How could she refuse under the circumstances? She lowered her gaze. “At your pleasure, my lord.”
“Very well, then. But if we are to proceed with this plan, I must be blunt and tell you both that it will take more than a few lessons in social comportment and style to turn the trick. Miss Hammond must put herself entirely in my hands and do as she is instructed, and that includes making an adjustment to her appearance.”
Her head came up. “M-my appearance?” She was fully aware she was not the most beautiful of women. Nevertheless it hurt to hear him discuss such matters aloud.
“Hmm. If you want men who are more than fortune hunters and rogues to offer you marriage, then half measures will not do.”
“Of what precisely are you thinking?” Violet questioned.
“A complete makeover from head to foot. Hair and clothes to start——“
“But I am still in mourning,” Eliza protested. Defensively, she plucked at her black skirts, knowing how severe they were. Even so, they were more becoming than most of the unsightly shades her aunt had been in the habit of choosing for her. When duty had required her to dye all her old dresses black, it had come as no great loss.
“Well,” he said, “you shan’t be in mourning forever, and when you are not you will need a new wardrobe. You’ve plenty of blunt for it now, what with the inheritance you received from your aunt.”
He was right about that, she mused. Although even now, weeks later, she had still not gotten used to the realization that her aunt Doris——who had never shown her anything but scorn and disapproval in her whole life——had made Eliza the sole beneficiary of a vast fortune.
All two hundred thousand pounds of it!
Eliza had not had so much as an inkling that her aunt possessed such great wealth. Why would she when the woman had forced them to live like virtual paupers? Spending the winters, no matter how harsh, bundled into layer upon layer of thick wool rather than pay to burn a few extra logs in the fireplace. Refusing to let Eliza buy new handkerchiefs or fresh gloves until the old ones were so worn through they were just a few threads shy of resembling Swiss cheese. Scoffing at the notion of purchasing a reliable team of horses, maintaining that a pair of tired, old rented hacks could do the job satisfactorily enough.
Apparently even Aunt Doris’s son, Philip Pettigrew, had not realized the size of his mother’s estate. At the reading of the will, he had looked as stunned as Eliza had felt, clearly reeling as much from learning the amount of his mother’s fortune as by the fact that he had just been cut off from it.
Even now she remembered the sick cast to her cousin’s complexion once the solicitor had finished that day. She also recalled the instant of fierce hatred that had raged in her cousin’s cold black eyes before he had willed the expression away.
She shivered at the memory, pushing it aside.
Since then she had spent very little of her new wealth, and nothing on herself. She had given all of her aunt’s servants a healthy, and long overdue, increase in wages. She had also instructed her aunt’s man of business to pay for several much needed repairs to her aunt’s London townhouse. Now her townhouse, since the abode had also been left to her in the will. But as a single woman, living there alone would not have been proper. And truth be told, she did not wish to live alone, not even with a hired companion.
Thank heaven for Violet and Adrian. Bless them, she thought, for so graciously inviting her into their home.
She supposed under the circumstances it was her duty to spend some of her inheritance. She gazed at Violet and knew her friend only had her well-being at heart. And considering all of Violet’s many kindnesses, how could she do anything but give way?
“A new wardrobe would not come amiss, I suppose,” she agreed.
“Good.” Kit nodded, flashing her a quick smile. He paused to draw his gold watch out of his vest pocket, snapping open the case to check the time. “As for the rest, why don’t we talk of it tomorrow? I have plans scheduled this evening and if I don’t get ready now, I shall be late.”
“Of course, go on.” Violet reached out her hands, clasped Kit’s to give them a friendly parting squeeze. “You won’t regret agreeing to help.”
“Hmm. Only time shall tell,” he murmured. “Miss Hammond, until the morrow.”
She nodded her head. “My lord.”
She waited until he was gone from the room. Only then did she become aware of her fingers and how tightly she had them clasped together in her lap. Pain shot through her hands, blood flowing normally again as she loosened her grip. Abashed, she sighed.
Dear heavens, what have I done?
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