Now or Never. . .
It's the last chance for Cynthia Brightly, the ton's most bewitching belle. Driven out of London by a secret scandal, she must find a grand husband at the Redmonds' house party before word of her downfall spreads all over England. Unfortunately, someone at Pennyroyal Green is already privy to the whispers of broken engagements and dueling lovers: Miles Redmond, renowned explorer and — thanks to his brother's disappearance — heir to the family's enormous fortune.
Miles set his sights on Cynthia once, at a time when the ambitious beauty thought herself too good for a second son. But now he's heir apparent, relishing his control. He strikes a bargain with her: he'll keep Cynthia's steamy secrets and help her find a husband among the guests — in exchange for a single kiss.
What could be the harm in a simple kiss? Cynthia is about to discover that it's enough to unleash fierce passion — and that Miles Redmond is most certainly like no other lover in the world.
"You've gone an alarming shade of russet in the face, Redmond."
This observation from Mr. Culpepper, Pennyroyal Green's resident historian, ended a pronounced lull in conversation, which had begun when the door of the Pig & Thistle swung open, admitting a rush of damp air, a rustle of laughter, and three people. One of the people was Miles Redmond's sister Violet. As Violet was invariably emphatically Violet, she bore watching. Particularly because the person best at goading Violet, his brother Jonathon Redmond, came in the door beside her. The third person . . .
The third person was responsible for Mile's russet color.
Miles watched Cynthia Brightly—of all people, Cynthia Brightly—pull at the fingers of her gloves until her hands were free of them, hang up her cloak on a peg near the door, and say something to Violet that caused his sister to tip back her head and laugh merry peals calculated to draw looks.
Every head in the pub drifted helplessly toward the sound the way flowers turn to the sun.
Normally Miles would have rolled his eyes.
Instead he watched, riveted, as Miss Brightly took a general look about the pub: at the table full of laughing Everseas, at Miss Marietta Endicott of Miss Marietta Endicott's Academy for Young Ladies having supper with what appeared to be two concerned parents and one sullen young lady. At him. Her remarkable blue eyes neither brightened nor darkened in recognition when they brushed his—why would they?—and her faint smile, the aftermath of laughter, remained unaltered. He might well have been the pillar or a hat rack for how seen he'd been.
Whereas the brush of her gaze left Miles buzzing like a struck tuning fork.
What in God's name was she doing in Sussex? In Pennyroyal Green? With Violet?
"I would have said he's gone more of a claret," Culpepper said to Cooke. He threw the words down like a gauntlet. He was irritable this evening, as Cooke had won three chess games in a row, and Culpepper hungered for a controversy, any controversy.If none other was forthcoming, Miles's complexion would have to do.
The two scholarly gentlemen had known Miles since he'd been born, and they'd been particularly proprietary about him since he returned from his now renowned South Seas expedition two years ago. He'd in fact thrilled them into silence when he confided he was in the midst of planning a much grander return expedition and offered them an opportunity to invest in it.
Which was when the door opened and Miles had apparently changed color.
His bloody sister had a gift for controversy, but he never would have anticipated this.
He found his voice. "I've gone claret? Perhaps it's just that we're too close to the fire."
Across from him, two pairs of furry brows dove in skeptical unison. At the Pig & Thistle, Culpepper and Cooke and, by association, Miles, were always close to the fire, as this was where the chessboard lived.
Miles gave what was meant to be an illustrative good-heavens-isn't-it-warm-in-here tug at his cravat. He was surprised to encounter the hard thump of his pulse in his throat.
This, too, was Cynthia Brightly's fault.
He dropped his hand flat to the table and stared hard at it, as though he could read in its veins and tendons the reasons for his response. The scientist in him wanted to know precisely what it was he felt about the woman. Strong emotions visited him so seldom—he could hardly blame them, as he was hardly a hospitable host—it was difficult to know whether it was anger or something else.
Certainly anger was a part of it.