Included in this Regency collection from a winner of multiple awards for her historical romance are:
MARRY IN HASTE
When James, Viscount Demarr, seeks a convenient bride for immediate marriage, Amelia Ravenscroft—desperate to escape a life of drudgery—is more than willing to oblige. But will their business arrangement turn into something far more personal?
ONCE BITTEN TWICE SHY
After a disastrous first marriage, Jason Warwycke, Marquess of Wyckeham, has vowed never to wed again . . . until he sets eyes on Ianthe Templeton, who has her own reasons for wanting a husband. And they have little to do with love—or so she thinks . . .
Denied the hand of her first love—the devastatingly handsome Earl of Synley—Lexie Holloway resolves to remain a spinster. But when she learns that the earl has become available once more, can she summon the passion she once felt for him again?
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Amelia Ravenscroft sat shivering on a small bench in the furthest corner of the cold terrace while everyone else enjoyed themselves inside the ballroom. She knew she couldn't stay there forever, but nothing would make her go back inside a moment before she had to. She would rather freeze to death.
The members of the ton currently residing in Bath had gathered for their usual round of match-making and flirting, which was all determined by wealth and social status. Amelia no longer had either, being a poor relation dependent on her aunt's goodwill, and consequently they treated her as if she didn't exist. It was infuriating and humiliating all at once and she was determined to have at least a short respite from playing the wallflower.
Lost in thought, she failed to notice that she was no longer alone on the terrace until a disembodied voice echoed across the expanse with some force, startling her.
'I need to marry, and I need to marry at once,' it declared.
Intrigued, Amelia peered through the darkness to see if she could discern the speaker. Two men were standing by the low parapet, lit from behind by the light spilling out of the French doors. She couldn't make out their features, but one was clearly agitated and began to pace back and forth.
'What am I to do? It's impossible, I tell you.'
'Well, surely James, it can't be that difficult to find a female to marry at short notice?' the calmer man said. 'After all, you're a personable fellow and there was a time when all the young ladies were throwing themselves at you, as I recall.'
'That was before the scandal.' The one called James continued his pacing. 'You know as well as I do that any female who married me would have to be besotted to the point of madness to put up with all the slights and snubs she would be sure to receive. No one in polite society will so much as have me under their roof. I'm only here tonight because Mrs Cruikshank is my mother's cousin and she took pity on me.'
'Hmm, tricky situation. Why the hurry?'
'My grandfather is dying. He told me the doctors give him only a few months, maybe half a year at best, and he wants to see me settled and with an heir on the way, if possible, before he goes. The old curmudgeon was the only one to stand by me at the time of the scandal. How can I refuse his dying wish?'
'Why not elope with someone? That's the fastest way, surely.'
Amelia stifled a gasp. Elopement was a serious step for anyone to take — the two people involved would have to be truly desperate — but how she wished someone would try to elope with her. Anything would be better than spending another night under her aunt's roof.
'No, that requires wooing first, and I haven't the time.'
'What about the daughter of a city merchant then? They'll happily overlook anything to have a man of aristocratic lineage in the family.'
'Not an option. My future wife has to be of a good family, grandfather insisted on that. I wondered ... you wouldn't happen to know of an indigent but respectable lady who might jump at the chance to marry? A governess or lady's companion perhaps? Surely someone like that would appreciate having their own establishment, rather than be at the beck and call of an employer? I don't normally come across their kind in the sort of circles I move in, so I'm at my wit's end.'
'Sorry, but not offhand. Give me a few weeks and maybe my wife could help me find someone?'
A deep sigh reached Amelia's ears. She knew she shouldn't be listening to this conversation, should have declared her presence immediately in fact, but she found herself riveted and couldn't have moved if her life depended on it.
'Thank you, but that will probably be too late. Never mind, it was a long shot. I appreciate you listening to my ravings, but now you had better go back into the ballroom and do the pretty to your beloved. I shall stay here for a while I think, save mother's cousin the embarrassment of having to introduce me to anyone else.'
Silence descended on the terrace. Although the sounds of a ball in full swing emanated from the open windows, to Amelia it felt as if they came from a different world, one to which she did not belong. The man who had stayed outside leaned on the balustrade and lit a cheroot. She could see the tip of it glowing from time to time and the sharp aroma of tobacco wafted past her nose. His features were still hidden by the darkness, but something in his voice had made her feel for him in his predicament. He sounded almost as despairing as she herself felt this evening. In fact, it was as if fate had brought them together, giving them the means to solve each other's problems, but ...
No! She tried to suppress the thought that had been taking shape in her mind while she eaves-dropped. I could never be so bold! That would be outrageous. But then again, what did she have to lose?
Before she could think further, she jumped to her feet and half-ran over to the man by the balustrade. Obviously startled by the unexpected footfall behind him, he turned swiftly, and she saw him frown. 'What the ...?' he began, then collected himself. 'I beg your pardon, ma'am, I did not hear you come out.' He bowed stiffly and threw his cheroot into the flower bed below, then made as if to step around her to return inside.
Amelia stopped him by the simple expedient of taking a step in the same direction. 'I ... I didn't come out exactly,' she stammered nervously. 'I was sitting on the bench over there,' she pointed towards the shadows behind them, 'and I'm afraid I overheard your conversation with your friend.'
His eyes narrowed a fraction and he looked at her more closely. 'I see. And did you learn anything of value?' he asked sarcastically.
'Well, yes, I mean no ... I mean, oh I don't know how to say this, but ...' She took a deep breath and the words came tumbling out in a rush. 'I will marry you if you wish.'
The man stared at her as if she had suddenly grown two heads and Amelia cringed. She couldn't understand what had possessed her to do this. She must be out of her mind, but having gone this far, she decided she may as well continue.
'I don't care for society at all, so I wouldn't mind being snubbed, and I come from a very good family. My grandfather was the Marquess of Ravenscroft.'
'Was he indeed? If that is so, then why are you out here on your own proposing marriage to a stranger? I take it you don't know who I am?'
'Erm, no. No I don't, but the thing is, it doesn't matter. Anyone will do.'
'How flattering. That makes me feel a lot better,' he drawled.
Amelia took another deep breath. This was not going at all well and had it not been so dark, the man would have seen that she was blushing from head to toe. 'What I meant was, I need to marry too and I cannot afford to be choosy. I'm one of those females you spoke of who would appreciate having my own establishment, rather than being dependent on an employer or relative. As long as you can give me a roof over my head and a ring on my finger, that is all that matters.'
He regarded her in silence, then shook his head as if he couldn't believe this was happening. 'Tell me, what is it you need to escape from? I take it there is a good reason for your desperation? Are you with child?'
'No!' Amelia was horrified. 'Of course not. That's the whole point — I'm trying to avoid being seduced out of wedlock.'
'Perhaps you should start at the beginning? I'm finding myself increasingly muddled by your explanations. Come, let us sit on your hidden bench.' He grabbed her elbow and steered her none too gently to the dark corner and sat down. 'Now then, first things first — I'm James Jolyon Winholt, Viscount Demarr, and you are?'
'You're a v-viscount?' Amelia gasped, horrified at just how far she'd overstepped the mark. She'd thought him nothing but a country squire, which would have suited her fine, but this? Dear God ... She felt the fiery blush of embarrassment spread over her body once again.
'Yes, and heir to an earldom since my parents were killed in a carriage accident some fifteen years ago. Does it matter? You said anyone would do, did you not? Now please, won't you tell me your name?'
Amelia wasn't sure if he was teasing her, but she seemed to have no choice but to go on now. 'Yes, of course. I'm Amelia Ravenscroft.'
'Very well, now tell me all.'
Amelia took a deep breath and launched into her story. 'My father, Colonel Ravenscroft, died a year ago. He ... he shot himself, having incurred too many gambling debts. He was never quite himself after my mother's death a few years before that and, well, his gaming got out of hand ... Anyway, I was left penniless, but my aunt by marriage, that is my mother's sister-in-law the dowager Lady Marsh, took me in as she needed a companion for her daughter Maria. It turned out that she also needed a housekeeper, so I took on those duties as well and a few others besides, which I didn't mind, honestly. I'm happy to work in order to earn my keep, and if that had been everything that was expected of me, all would have been well. But then her son, Sir Bernard, came home to "rusticate", as he put it. For some reason he decided I was fair game and began to pursue me, making my life very difficult. I have avoided him so far, but he grows more daring with each day and soon I fear I will not be able to keep him at bay.'
Lord Demarr frowned. 'But surely your aunt can put a stop to this? It would not be in her interest to have her son seduce you.'
Amelia shook her head. 'No, she knows what he is doing and is turning a blind eye. He is her favourite, you see, she always wants him to have whatever he desires. I think, if the worst came to the worst, she would simply send me away, and then what would I do?'
'It sounds very callous to me. You are sure your cousin doesn't mean to marry you?'
'No, indeed. Why should he if he can have what he wants anyway? He's forever broke, so he needs to marry an heiress. Besides, I wouldn't marry him if he was the last man on earth! He makes my skin crawl.'
'And how do you know I won't have the same effect on you?'
Amelia blinked. 'Well, I ... I hadn't thought of that.'
'Perhaps we should put it to the test?' His lordship smiled and without further ado pulled Amelia into his embrace and gave her a soft kiss, full on the lips. She froze, expecting to be frightened, but the extraordinary thing was that she felt none of the revulsion Bernard's attempts at kissing her had provoked. Quite the opposite. And when Lord Demarr stopped, her lips were left tingling. It was the strangest feeling.
His lordship abruptly pulled her to her feet and dragged her over to where light was spilling out from one of the tall windows. He studied her face and then nodded, as if satisfied with what he saw. 'Very well, Miss Ravenscroft, I think you passed the test. I shall need to confirm your story somehow, but if you are telling me the truth, I see no reason why we shouldn't marry. After all, the matter is urgent.'
Amelia stilled, unable to utter so much as a word. In the light she saw his features clearly for the first time, and realised what an attractive man he was. Tall, with a shock of dark hair that was too long to be fashionable, his face looked like it had been sculpted by Michelangelo or his like. She could not see the colour of his eyes, but his gaze pierced her to the core. Powerful shoulders and legs added to the look of determination and she almost quaked in her shoes. What had she got herself into?
'I ...,' she began, but her tongue refused to form the words that would stop this madness.
'Can you meet me out here in another hour or so?' he asked, bringing her back to her senses.
'Yes, I suppose so.'
'Good. I will go and make some enquiries, then meet you here. Until then ...' He took one of her hands in his and bent to brush it with his lips. 'Adieu.'
As James walked away from the strange but compelling female on the terrace, he wondered if he was insane to even think of accepting her proposal. A female, proposing — who'd ever heard of such a thing! She was clearly desperate, and although her story rang true, he could not but wonder at her motives. Surely, if she did not want to remain under her aunt's roof, she could apply for a post as a governess or companion? But he knew that without references, she may not be very successful.
She was not exactly the sort of female he had envisaged as his wife. Although her face had been pretty enough, she had worn her silver-blonde hair in unbecoming ringlets that looked none too clean. She was small and plump, rather too plump round the middle for his liking, and the dress she had been wearing had done nothing to enhance her attractions — quite the opposite in fact. The material had resembled nothing so much as sackcloth and James was sure she couldn't have chosen a worse colour if she had tried. The non-descript sandy hue had made her already pale complexion seem ashen.
The point was, however, that he did not have the time to be fussy. As long as she fulfilled the criteria his grandfather had dictated, that was all that mattered. After all, it wasn't as though James intended to spend a great deal of time in her company. Once she was with child, he could leave her in the country while he went back to his usual pursuits.
He decided that, all things considered, perhaps Miss Ravenscroft would do very nicely indeed.
Amelia hurried back inside, anxious lest her aunt had missed her. She was required to see to her cousin Maria's every need, but fortunately that young lady was dancing when Amelia returned. Lady Marsh was enjoying a cosy tte-a-t te with a particular crony of hers, discussing all the latest on-dits. No one had noted Amelia's absence.
The next hour passed excruciatingly slowly, despite the lavish supper that was served after the supper dance. Since Amelia had not been partnered for this dance, there was no one to lead her in and she was forced to eat with her aunt and that lady's friends. This didn't bother her much, for she was far too nervous to want any food.
What on earth has got into me? she wondered. How could she have been so brazen as to propose marriage to a complete stranger? She knew nothing about him. Despite the fact that he was a high-ranking nobleman, he could be a cruel and vicious man and she could be letting herself in for a horrifying future. What was the scandal he had spoken of? Had he perhaps killed someone?
She brought her thoughts firmly under control and tried to think rationally. Surely he wouldn't be a free man if he was a murderer? It was more likely that the scandal had to do with either a woman, a duel or gambling, and none of those things troubled her unduly except perhaps the last one. She would have to make sure he wasn't a gambler like her late father, or she would be left destitute once more.
Time dragged on and Amelia began to doubt that Lord Demarr would really meet her on the terrace again. Had it just been a ruse to rid himself of what he probably considered a demented female? She didn't know whether he had truly believed her or had only pretended.
At last the time came, and she excused herself to her aunt. Once out on the terrace, she stood for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then she saw a slight movement over by the bench. The viscount was there before her.
'I'm sorry, I couldn't get away any earlier,' she apologised, slightly breathless with nerves.
'That is quite all right, I have only just arrived myself.'
He was silent for the longest time, and Amelia was beginning to think that he was trying to find a way of letting her down gently when he finally spoke. 'Well, I can't find any faults with your story,' he said. 'It seems everyone knows that your aunt is using you in return for your daily bread, even mistreating you according to some. Our hostess, Mrs Cruikshank, was especially forthcoming on the subject.'
'She and my aunt are not the best of friends. Truly, my situation is not as bad as all that, it was only when Bernard —'
'Ah, yes, your cousin. I have to tell you that he corroborated your story himself.'
'What? You asked him?' Amelia was aghast at the thought.
'No, no, I'm not such a sapskull as all that.' The viscount gave her a quick grin which did strange things to her insides. 'I asked my friend David, who apparently knows your cousin slightly, to joke with him about the blonde beauty he has living under his mother's roof. Believe it or not, the man actually had the nerve to hint that you were his mistress. He implied that you had thrown yourself at him ever since you arrived in the hope that he would marry you.'
Amelia nearly choked with rage. 'How dare he?' She stood up to go and confront the lying toad on the spot.
Excerpted from "Regency Romance Collection"
Copyright © 2013 Christina Courtenay.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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