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Most Scandalous Engagement
Could she be the brazen lady who posed for the scandalous portrait?
Lady Elizabeth Cabot is no longer the reckless girl she once was. Now the darling of the ton, she is determined to put her past behind her. But who would have imagined that one immodest act could throw her entire world into chaos...and force her toward a loveless marriage? In desperation, she approaches her childhood friend, Peter Derby, with a daring plan.
Peter still remembers the wild and spirited girl who had stolen his heart. But could the rumors be true: is she the model for the scandalous painting hanging in London's most exclusive gentlemen's club? If Peter agrees to pose as her fiance, Elizabeth has promised to reveal the whole truth.
But Peter has his own ideas about this sham "engagement" to the exquisite beauty who's always been just out of his reach--and he's willing to incite yet another scandal to make her heart truly his.
(The following is the property of the
author and Avon Books, and cannot be
copied or reprinted without permission.)
(Story Setup: Peter Derby used to free Lady
Elizabeth Cabot from childhood scrapes, but always knew he was beneath her
socially. Then he discovered Elizabeth and her two female cousins posing as
boys to steal a nude painting from the wall of a gentlemen’s club. To protect
each other, all three women vowed to be the model. He and his two friends made
a wager to discover the truth. When another man attempts to blackmail
Peter was waiting in the library beside the door
Her usual calm grace had deserted her. Her movements were hurried, restless, as she circled the leather wing-back chairs, and looked up at the bookshelves as if about to choose a title. Peter waited and watched, curious, but patient.
At last she took a deep breath and turned to face him. Those dark eyes seemed to roil with emotions, uncertainty and determination mixed with anger. He approached her, his unease growing.
He took her hands and she didn’t even stop him.
Though her skin was soft and supple, her fingers were cold. “
She opened her mouth, hesitated, then the words seemed to tumble from her lips quickly. “I need you to pretend to be my fiancé for the next few weeks.”
That was certainly nothing he’d ever imagined. Stunned and worried about her, he still felt a jolt of desire as he wondered what it would be like if that were real. But she didn’t want it to be real. Something was making her desperate.
She tried to yank her hands away. “Say something, Peter!”
He didn’t let her go, saying mildly, “You can hardly propose to me and not tell me why.”
“It’s not a proposal! Not really,” she added, shoulders slumping.
“I can’t talk about this, Peter. I thought, for the sake of our friendship, you would help me.”
She interrupted again. “And if our childhood friendship isn’t enough, then I will make a bargain with you. If you agree to a false engagement, and allow me to break it off when I need to, I will tell you the truth about the painting. You’ll defeat your friends.”
She watched him closely, waiting, not even breathing, Peter thought. Something had driven her to such a desperate act, and he had to understand why. To hell with the wager.
“I won’t answer your questions, Peter. That’s part of the bargain. In return for your help and your silence, you’ll defeat your friends. What more do you want?”
He pulled her hands up to press them flat to his
Stubborn, she seemed determined not to confide in him. But did she not realize that if he agreed to her insane plan, they would be forced to be closer than ever? Certainly then he could find out the truth, help her somehow. He’d always been the one who rescued her, who hid her secrets—and now she was asking for that again.
She stared at her hands where they rested on his chest. He rubbed her fingers gently with his palms, wanting to warm her, to ease her. Again she pulled away, and this time he allowed it.
“Peter, this is not something I’ve asked lightly.” She didn’t quite meet his eyes. “I understand how it will affect me, what I’ll have to do. But it’s temporary, and it will not affect my family. But you—how will it affect you? Will you mind lying to your family?”
I once lied to yours, he thought, then submerged his uneasiness. That was the past.
“Or is there a woman you’re courting?” she continued.
Now she searched his eyes, and he was able to
say, “There’s no one.” And it was only partly the truth. There was no one else
he’d ever seriously considered. Since
“And those women I heard about?”
Though he smiled, her expression didn’t ease. “We only amuse each other, games and not commitments.”
Nodding, she looked away. Only in mourning had he seen such unhappiness shadow her face. He felt sympathetic, and had to try reasoning with her one last time.
She bit her lip even as she nodded.
“And your mother will believe that?”
“She has to.” Her words were low and tense, fraught with anxiety.
He’d spent years wondering if they could have more than a friendship, and now she was presenting him with the opportunity. But by risking everything with a false engagement, she would have to live with the results.
He spoke slowly, clearly. “You do understand that in order for our parents to believe this, we won’t be playing this safe.”
The relief in her eyes was obvious. “Then you’ll do it? Be my fiancé?”
“Yes, I’ll do it.”
A frown grew as she understood his previous words. “Safe? I know this can’t be safe. We’re lying to the people we love—to everyone.”
“And you’ve had much practice lying lately.”
“You’ll discover the truth once you’ve helped me. Isn’t that what you want, Peter?”
“I don’t do anything half way. To convince them we’re serious about marriage, you’ll do everything I say, accept anything I do.” At last, openly, he let his gaze drop languidly down her body. He’d hidden his regard and admiration these last few years; it felt brazen and exciting to show her his desire.
Her eyes went wide as a blush stole across her cheeks. “You don’t need to look at me that way.”
“Then who will believe me?”
He stepped even closer, close enough to feel her breath coming too quickly.
“They’ll think you lost your mind to give up a wealthy, expected marriage with a peer, for someone like me,” he said in a low voice. “The only reason could be a love match. Had you not thought of that? Are you sure you want this?”
He almost didn’t ask that last question, for now he desperately wanted to be close to her, to taste the forbidden before he had to let her go forever.
And he had to discover her secrets.
“I need this,” she whispered, looking up at him.
He gently brushed a curl from her forehead, let
his palm linger and cup her cheek. She was trembling, but she didn’t back down.
She swallowed heavily, unable to hide a wince. “Oh Peter—”
His thumb brushed over her lips. “You have to be
better at make-believe than this,
At last the dark fire of determination rose again in her eyes, and he was glad of it. Whatever was wrong, she needed to be strong to combat it.
“If you can do this for me, I won’t let you down,” she said almost grimly.
But she was still trembling lightly, as he stroked the smooth skin of her cheek, then along her bottom lip.
“No one can see us,” she whispered. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I have to think of you in a new way. I have to let it show in my eyes when I profess my love to your family.”
She gave another wince, but he didn’t let her speak. He put his hands on her upper arms.
“You have to become used to my touch. You’re going to have to look like you wish I could be doing more than holding your hand.”
“Oh, but I couldn’t!” she cried, then looked about the library in guilt, as if someone might have overheard. “Surely that is not done.”
“Have you ever watched two people in love?”
He saw her giving it real thought, knew she’d watched her cousins and her brother fall in love. How could a young lady not envy the love and trust and devotion those couples shared when they looked at each other?
She kept staring at him, and he saw the dawning truth in her eyes. Something had caused her to panic, to make her think of this crazy idea, more risky than any scrape from her youth. But she’d tried so hard not to be that girl any more. She would back down now and tell him the truth, ask for his help.
But instead, she slid her arms about his waist and leaned against him, looking up. He’d never had the chance to hold her, to feel her body against him, though the possibility had tormented his dreams. Her breasts were soft and round and so tempting.
“Is this right, Peter?” she asked tremulously. “You’ll guide me in how to do this? I can’t afford to make any mistakes.”
It was all about her desperation, her problems. He knew that. She’d only viewed him as a friend.
But now he had the chance to make her think otherwise, to see him as man.
He slid his hands over her shoulders and down the smooth, elegant slope of her back, pulling her even closer against him.
“It’s a good start,
Her eyes widened the nearer he came, but she didn’t pull away.
He stopped just before their lips met. “But you have so much more to learn.”
Then he stepped away from her, unlocked the door, and walked out of the library.
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