When New York Times bestselling author Victoria Alexander created the Effingtons, she introduced an irresistible clan. Now, meet her most unforgettable hero yet . . .
Dashing Jonathon Effington, the Marquess of Helmsley, has had more than one lady willingly fall into his arms. But he's so delicious none has ever complained at their inevitable parting. And while Jonathon's no stranger to passion of the flesh, his heart has remained untouched. Until now . . .
At each Christmas Ball, Jonathon selects a delectable lady to share the pleasures of the evening--after all, it's a holiday tradition! But he is shocked to discover that his choice is replaced by an enchanting stranger who surprises him with a proposal of marriage. Beautiful Fiona Fairchild is desperate--only a wedding will save her sisters and her inheritance. But Jonathon has no interest in marriage, and what starts as a shocking proposal turns into a scandalous proposition that might ruin them both . . .
Six days later . . .
"What am I to do, Oliver?" Miss Fiona Fairchild paced the width of her cousin's parlor and ignored the amused, or perhaps bemused, expression on his face.
Fiona and her sisters had arrived at Oliver's home a scant hour ago accompanied by the Contessa Orsetti, who had graciously agreed to chaperone them on their journey from Italy. She was traveling to England anyway and said it was certainly no bother. Aunt Edwina had greeted the party with an enthusiasm that quite warmed Fiona's heart and provided a significant measure of relief as well. For one thing, Aunt Edwina was thankfully nothing like the contessa, who could be both overbearing and presumptuous. For another, her aunt and cousin had had very little warning as to their arrival and it had been more than a dozen years since they'd last seen one another. After sending the contessa on her way, Aunt Edwina had spirited the younger girls off to settle them in their accommodations. Fiona had preferred to wait in the parlor for Cousin Oliver to return home.
His greeting had been just as warm as his mother's, but Fiona had had no time for idle pleasantries. In truth, she had no time to waste at all. She had a crisis of immense proportions confronting her and Oliver might well be her only salvation.
"I refuse to marry a man I've never seen, let alone met, and an American at that. He would probably wish to live in his own country and I have spent far too many years away from England already. This is my home and I have missed it more than I can say."
Oliver leaned casually against the fireplace mantel and studied her. "But you are not averse to marriage in and of itself?"
"Of course not. I wish to marry. Whatever would I do if I did not marry? I am rather a good match, you know." She turned to him and ticked the points off on her fingers. "I am of good family. I can run a household. I am an excellent hostess. I speak three languages fluently and several others adequately. And the mirror tells me, as have any number of suitors, that I am pretty as well."
"You are not as . . . round and speckled as you were as a child," Oliver murmured. "You have turned out nicely. Quite nicely."
"Surprisingly so." She grinned with the satisfaction of a woman who was indeed pleased with the way she'd turned out. "Thank you, cousin." Her smile vanished. "What am I to do?"
Oliver's brows drew together. "I cannot believe Uncle Alfred would leave you in such a position."
"He was, unfortunately, doing what he thought was best for me. He had encouraged me to marry for years before he fell ill."
"I assume there were offers?" Oliver's gaze traveled over her in an appreciative manner.
She was well aware of precisely what he saw: a figure no longer plump but curved and appealingly lush, hair that had deepened from a bright, almost orange color to a rich mahogany, intelligent green eyes that tilted upward slightly at the corners and a porcelain complexion marred only by an annoying smattering of pale freckles across the bridge of her nose that men oddly enough seemed to find enchanting. Fiona Fairchild had become a true beauty and she well knew it. Why, hadn't men compared her to a Renaissance painting?
Still, she could be as ugly as sin, for all it mattered.
"Yes, of course." She waved away his comment. "Aside from the aforementioned attributes, I am heir to a significant fortune. At least I was. When Father realized he would not recover . . ." A wave of sadness passed through her and she ignored it.