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Miranda Neville
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Confessions from an Arranged Marriage: Excerpt

Chapter 1

London, Spring 1822

Lord Blakeney wasn’t in the ballroom. He wasn’t even in the building. Minerva Montrose wouldn’t care if he was on a ship to America.

When the stone-faced footman informed Miss Montrose that his lordship was nowhere to be found, it came as no surprise to her. If you asked her to name the men in the world guaranteed to be unreliable, the Marquis of Blakeney would be first on her list.

Never mind that the ball was at Vanderlin House, the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Hampton. Never mind that the ball was occasioned by her formal presentation to the ton. And certainly never mind that Blakeney, the duke’s only son and heir, was supposed to open the ball with her. Minerva knew him well enough to be undisturbed by his failure to keep this particular engagement. Neither was she disappointed at the loss of a partner who would have younger debutantes grinding their teeth with envy. Her marital ambitions took no account of high rank.

“I don’t think Blakeney’s coming.” Her brother-in-law, Viscount Iverley, looked so mournful Minerva had to smile.

“This must be the first time in your life you’ve been sorry for his absence,” she said.

“I’d be just as happy if I never had to set eyes on him again.”

“I haven’t seen him for almost two years. I don’t suppose he has changed.”

Sebastian gave a contemptuous grunt. “He was an arrogant ass at the age of ten, with very little reason I may say, and he never got any better. He’s an idiot without a worthwhile thought in his head.”

“The duke and duchess are clever people. How did they produce such a son?”

“Perhaps he was dropped on his head by a nurse.”

Sebastian’s feud with his first cousin went back to their childhood, and winning Diana, Minerva’s sister, from his old rival had done nothing to abate his dislike. Minerva adored her brother-in-law and shared his opinion of Blakeney’s intellect. At another time the pair of them would have enjoyed a cheerful enumeration of the latter’s many shortcomings, but Sebastian had something else on his mind.

“Do you suppose I shall have to dance with you instead?”

Minerva resisted the urge to tease a man teetering on the edge of desperation. “Only if we cannot find me another partner, preferably one who is both sober and capable of rational conversation. Blakeney, should he appear, is likely to be neither."

Sebastian’s look of terror flickered to one of shrewdness. “The Member of Parliament for Gristlewick, I suppose. Does the fellow realize you are going to hunt him down and transform him, willy-nilly, into a successful statesman?”

Minerva lowered her eyes to her slippers with a modesty that would fool no one who knew her. “Mr. Parkes, if I’m not mistaken, would like to be Prime Minister, and I’m the very person to make it happen.”

“Good luck to him. Which is he?”

This early in the evening the ballroom remained less than half full. Those present for the most part compromised political aspirants anxious to please the duke, rather than the merely fashionable members of the ton, who preferred to be fashionably late. Ignoring Adam’s most famous London interior, which to Minerva’s eye was merely white and gold with a lot of pillars, passing with indifference over anyone in a gown, her questing gaze sought a cluster of men in earnest conversation beyond the Ionic colonnade that divided off one end of the long chamber. “Over there.” she said.

“The short sandy-haired fellow?”

“I’d call it light brown. I would expect you of all people, Sebastian, to appreciate a man who cultivates his intellect rather than his appearance.”

“I take your word that the man is a paragon of learning. At the moment he’d impress me by coming to claim you for the opening dance.”

“He won’t do that. He has already engaged me for the second.”

Sebastian looked back at her, anxiety visible through his spectacles. “Then who are you going to dance with? You can’t sit out the first set when this wretched ball is in your honor.”

“Wretched? If it weren’t for Diana increasing, you’d be giving the ball yourself.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“It was very good of you to come up from Kent to support me.”

“Diana made me. And she ordered me to get a report on the new fashions. How the devil am I supposed to do that? And now I’m supposed to dance.”

Minerva patted his arm without a hint of mockery. Well, perhaps a hint. “Poor Sebastian. You should pity me too. I’d rather be conversing with all those M.P.s than leading off the dance. Cheer up. Here comes the duchess. Perhaps she’s found me a partner.” She tightened her grip on him lest he attempt escape.

Their hostess, the Duchess of Hampton, haughty and elegant in emerald green, joined them. “I’m sorry, Miss Montrose,” she said. “It seems my son has forgotten his engagement.” Only a thinning of the lips and a greater than usual coldness in her tone revealed the extent of her displeasure, but Minerva had no doubt the duchess was exceedingly angry at Blakeney’s discourtesy. “It is only proper that a member of the family lead you out. Unfortunately the duke’s heart does not allow him to dance.” Her eyes rested on her husband’s nephew. “Iverley. You must do the honors.”

“I want to kill Blakeney,” Sebastian muttered as he trailed her to the center of the room. “Not that there’s anything unusual about that.”

“Don’t worry,” Minerva said. “It’s a dance, not an execution.”

Having survived the first set without disaster, Sebastian limped off to find liquid refreshment and avoid being pressed onto the dance floor again. Minerva tended to share his dislike of dancing, but for a different reason. She had no trouble going through the steps, but during a pair of country dances with Mr. Thomas Parkes there was little time for discourse. Standing opposite in the line, she had ample opportunity to take in the agreeable appearance of the man, whom she’d long since selected as a potential husband based upon newspaper reports of his budding career. A little above average—only a man as tall as Lord Iverley would call him short–his height topped hers by two or three inches. His figure was solid without running to fat and encased in evening clothes distinguished by propriety without excessive elegance. The admittedly sandy hair was thick and well cut and crowned agreeable, sensible features.

All in all, a most satisfactory picture. Minerva set no store by good looks. In her experience handsome men tended to be arrogant and self-absorbed. One of many reasons she had little time for Lord Blakeney.

Mr. Parkes examined her in return and she smiled encouragingly. As her sister Diana had often told her, men were dreadfully shallow about a woman’s appearance and tended to be impressed first by beauty. She’d rather be esteemed for her intelligence, but Minerva was a realist. She knew people thought her pretty. If Mr. Parkes wanted smiles, she’d give him smiles. She believed him attracted to both her brains and her person and wondered how soon she could expect an offer. She’d like to be wed this season. There was a possibility the government would fall in the next few months and he would be embroiled in the excitement of the election. When that happened, Minerva had every intention of being involved as Mrs. Parkes.

At the end of the set, he offered his arm to escort her back to Lady Chase, her chaperone in Diana’s absence. Her eager question about the Irish situation died half formed because his attention, like most of the others in their vicinity, turned to the entrance. A gentleman staggered through the double doors and skidded on the polished parquetry floor. At a distance of twenty feet, Minerva saw the newcomer preserve his balance by grabbing the shoulders of a large-bosomed, open-mouthed matron. Swinging her aside, his backward slide was arrested by the wall. Without a hint of embarrassment he slouched against a pilaster and scowled at the assembly.

He was as gorgeous as ever. A lock of dark blond hair with glints of gold flopped over a noble brow. No nose had ever been more perfectly carved, no jaw as firmly etched. The shapely mouth was full, sensuous and sulky, matching the expression in his dusky blue eyes.

He’d always been a handsome devil but the sight of him filled Minerva with disgust.

Lord Blakeney had arrived.

Surveying the room, his glance came to rest on her. His lips twisted into a derisive half smile and their eyes met in mutual displeasure. He shoved his back away from the wall and ambled over to her.

“Our dance, I believe, Miss Montrose.” He hadn’t changed a bit.

Minerva felt a strong desire to slap his arrogant face. “Lord Blakeney,” she said with the merest hint of a curtsey. “I believe our dance was over half an hour ago.”

“This one will do just as well.”

Mr. Parkes forestalled her response with a bow and a polite “my lord.”

“Do I know you?” Blakeney asked.

“His Grace presented us at Brooks’s last week.”

“Right. I remember.” Obviously a lie. He’d never give a second thought to a man whom he couldn’t challenge to a fencing bout or horse race. Confirming her thought, he paid no more attention to the M.P. for Gristlewick but listened to the musicians tuning up with an exaggerated air. “I do believe it’s to be a waltz.” He proffered his arm. “Never let it be said I forget all my family obligations.”

Minerva replied through gritted teeth and a gratified smile. “I assure you, my lord, you owe me nothing. As your cousin’s sister-in-law our relationship is negligible.” Anyone watching would think her looking at him with pleasure, not noticing how her eyes slid over his shoulder to glance with envy and regret at Mr. Parkes, who had murmured his leave taking and headed in the delightful direction of the Home Secretary.

Blakeney’s eyes narrowed. “I meant my obligation to the duke and duchess. My revered parents. Your hosts.”

So he didn’t even pretend to be polite. Good.

Blakeney’s manners might not have improved since Minerva last set eyes on him, but at close quarters she detected subtle alterations in his appearance. He’d aged while she was living in Vienna and he at the Vanderlins’ Devon estate. Aged was perhaps the wrong word—he was only twenty-nine, or perhaps thirty, the same as Sebastian—but he no longer appeared quite the golden youth who’d courted Diana. She perceived a delicate web of lines extending from the corners of his eyes. When she’d known him before his grooming had always been impeccable. Now one of his stockings was wrinkled and his neck cloth askew. His hair brushed his collar, still damp and curling upward. He needed the attention of a barber. As he placed his hand on her waist she caught the fresh scent of verbena soap mingled with a strong aroma of brandy.

She supposed she’d better attempt to converse with the oaf. “My previous partner, Mr. Parkes, is a brilliant man with a brilliant future. I believe your father thinks very highly of him.”

He guided her into the turn with just a hint of excessive force and much to her satisfaction she detected a wobble in his footwork. Her smile broadened. She’d succeeded in irking him.

He recovered adroitly with no more than a firmer press of his hand, warm on her waist through her silk gown. He danced well, she grudgingly admitted, even though she was pretty sure he was foxed. He must have shaved himself for he’d missed a bit, on the left jaw. Fair as he was, she wouldn’t have noticed if she’d been more than the six inches away demanded by the waltz.

“Is your valet indisposed, or were you not at home when you changed for the evening?” An impertinent question that skirted impropriety, but there had always been something about Blakeney that made her lose her poise and behave like an unschooled savage.

The curve of his lips matched hers while his eyes lit with malice. “Since you ask, Miss Montrose, I came from Henrietta Street and the house of Mademoiselle Desirée de Bonamour.” He spoke in deep mocking tones. Though there was no reason fair coloring shouldn’t be accompanied by a low baritone, in Blakeney Minerva always found the combination incongruous. “She’s a very hospitable lady. When I realized I was late she invited me to share–er–use her bath.”

Infuriated with herself for blushing, she almost lost her temper. She wasn’t the least bit interested in the Frenchwoman, universally proclaimed (though mostly out of earshot of unmarried girls) as the most beautiful in London.

“I suppose you seek to embarrass me by mentioning your mistress,” she said.

“No,” he said. “Just to remind you that I have better things to do than cater to the consequence of an ambitious miss.”

“Then we find ourselves in perfect accord,” she retorted. “I have better objects of my attention than a spoiled wastrel without a thought in his head except for sports.” She favored him with a sweet and utterly insincere smile.

“Sports? Miss Montrose. I’m not thinking of sports now.”

Minerva wasn’t sure what the last riposte meant. He might be thinking of what he could be doing with his mistress, or, equally likely, that he’d like to kill his current partner. With four brothers Minerva was an expert at inciting the desire to commit violence. The smile she’d just employed could reduce the youngest Montrose to rabies.

She tried to read Blakeney’s face, in case it became necessary to duck and avoid strangulation. “I wouldn’t want to disturb your mental exertions, Lord Blakeney. I shall remain silent until we finish the waltz and may be done with each other.”

“It will be my very great pleasure, Miss Montrose, never to dance with you again.”

It took every ounce of her considerable willpower to keep a simper on her face and her feet off his; she was tempted more than once to stamp hard on the lout. She might have done it, by accident of course, if not for her doubt that her satin evening slippers would be able to inflict much pain on his big clumsy feet. Well not clumsy exactly. Even drunk they moved with deft precision after the one initial slip. His smile was as steady as hers, and from their expressions an onlooker would likely believe them to be enjoying the waltz in perfect accord.

They completed the set without exchanging another word.

 ••••••

After the dance, Blake has a disturbing encounter with an old enemy and overhears his friend Lamb set up a tryst in the library with the notorious Duchess of Lethbridge.

 ••••••

 Half an hour and half a bottle later, Blake had an idea. He and Lamb had been torturing each other with pranks for years. Why not tonight?

The library at Vanderlin House, though far smaller than that at Mandeville, the country seat in Shropshire, was well stocked. Gilt spines glowed by the light of a single lamp, turned down low. Slipping in from the deserted passage, Blake couldn’t appreciate the restful cool of the room with its faint odor of leather. Above the serried bookshelves loomed the ghostly marble faces of Greek and Roman philosophers. During visits to the library under the supervision of his tutors he’d often fantasized about shooting the smug bastards. Especially the Greek ones.

God, he hated Greek. He took a swig from his bottle and found it empty.

Narrowing his eyes, he assessed the odds of bowling it to bring down a bust of Plato. Easy with a cricket ball, but he wasn’t sure he could control the spin on a flying champagne bottle. He almost missed the fact that he was not alone. A woman in white lay on the divan, provided for comfortable reading but handy for a less cerebral activity.

The duchess had arrived early.

A tall woman, her feet hung over the end of the padded bench. One gloved arm was draped over her eyes while the other trailed dramatically toward the floor. He very much doubted she was asleep. Rather, he guessed, she had invited Lamb to participate in one of her little games.

Wandering satyr surprises sleeping nymph, perhaps. Or–suitable to the library setting–visiting scholar ravishes the virginal daughter of the house. Pondering the possibilities aroused a little interest in him. Not much. He’d spent most of the past week in Desirée’s bed. He was also quite drunk.

On the other hand, it would be amusing if Lamb arrived to find his position already occupied, so to speak. Childish but amusing. This was even better than surprising Lamb in flagrante. He stepped quietly across the room and squatted on the floor at the end of the couch, contemplating a pair of white slippers, made from silk with a swirly pattern. He corrected his balance by falling onto his knees, averted his eyes from the nauseating spirals, and looked at the duchess’s ankles instead.

Very pretty. Blake had always had a weakness for a neat ankle, though he didn’t recall ever taking note of Anthea Lethbridge’s. Slender, well defined, and deceptively innocent in pure white stockings.

With the tip of his forefinger he traced the bone beneath the silk. She didn’t move. He opened his hand and felt warmth under his palm. She twitched at his touch. He closed his hand around the tender limb and inched it upward. Her body undulated seductively and her legs parted a little, though from the rhythm of her breathing he’d think her asleep.

Sleeping nymph it was. Good acting.

With a hand on each ankle he gently drew the legs apart and leaned over to kiss the spot above her slipper, then, nudging at her skirt with his brow, he ran his lips up her inner calf.

The sweet heady scent of woman enticed him to explore further. He might not be in a fit state for the full performance—though that fact was now in dispute—but he could taste. And he knew the lady would appreciate his attention. Chuckling softly he raised the skirts and dove under until he was enclosed in a tent of silk petticoats. The soft skin of her thighs brushed his cheeks. Her fragrant heat was a siren call to his groin. The lovely duchess was going to receive double pleasure tonight.

She moved, stretched her legs out as though emerging from slumber. Then he heard the doorknob turn and remembered the existence of his old friend. Damn Lamb. He was early too.

“What?” The question was voiced in a blend of sleepiness and confusion, followed by a strangled shriek. Flailing hands beat at his head through the material of the gown and he hastily withdrew.

Sinking back onto his ankles he looked up to meet the outraged face of Miss Minerva Montrose.

“What are you doing?” she cried. She lay before him, her legs exposed to the knees.

His head swam and his mouth fell agape as they stared at each other in horror. Then in unison they turned to the door.

A parade that wouldn’t have disgraced the fashionable hour in Hyde Park trooped into the library.

His mother, the Duchess of Hampton.

Lord Iverley, his first cousin, lifelong enemy, and Minerva’s brother-in-law.

Lady Chase and Mrs. Compton, best friends of Diana, Minerva’s sister, Sebastian’s wife, and Blake’s erstwhile fiancée.

James Lambton, looking surprised.

The Duchess of Lethbridge, looking amused.

And Lady Georgina Harville, the biggest gossip in London.

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