Read A Most Sinful Proposal Online

Authors: Sara Bennett

A Most Sinful Proposal

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A Most Sinful Proposal
Sara Bennett

This one is for Andrew. No matter how many
years go by, he’s still my little brother.

Contents

Prologue

Marissa Rotherhild waited until the laughter and chatter faded. Olivia Monteith had…

Chapter 1

The first Lord Valentine Kent knew he had guests was…

Chapter 2

Abbey Thorne Manor was a treat. George had spoken of it to…

Chapter 3

Marissa nibbled delicately on a piece of chilled salmon and…

Chapter 4

There are six names on the list,” Valentine said, holding…

Chapter 5

During dinner, the expedition was discussed again, and when Jasper…

Chapter 6

Montfitchet, according to Valentine’s copy of Guidebook to Surrey, was…

Chapter 7

Valentine carried Jasper into the inn and up the creaking…

Chapter 8

He was kissing her. Marissa was aware of how soft…

Chapter 9

Moodily, Valentine watched her go. She appeared to be unaffected…

Chapter 10

Marissa dressed carefully for dinner. She was not greatly enamored…

Chapter 11

Valentine felt as if a bolt struck him low in…

Chapter 12

Marissa opened one eye as the maid brought her tea…

Chapter 13

Magna Midcombe had once been the site of an abbey. The…

Chapter 14

Self-centered, self-indulgent, irresponsible…” Marissa muttered to herself as she cast…

Chapter 15

George finished his ale with a sigh of contentment, looking…

Chapter 16

Dinner at Abbey Thorne Manor was a leisurely affair. Lord Jasper and…

Chapter 17

Valentine stood alone in the darkness. The night air was…

Chapter 18

By the time Marissa arrived in the breakfast room the…

Chapter 19

Canthorpe, the home of the Longhurst family, was beyond the…

Chapter 20

Marissa had never seen him look so serious. There was…

Chapter 21

It seemed as if Marissa had barely closed her eyes…

Chapter 22

Their horses crossed the drawbridge, hooves striking the stone, and…

Chapter 23

What do you think of my granddaughter and your friend…

Chapter 24

The door opened a fraction and Augustus Von Hautt’s heart began to…

Chapter 25

Valentine hadn’t visited the town of Bentley Green before, and…

Chapter 26

Marissa didn’t remember moving, but suddenly she was kneeling beside…

Chapter 27

Baron Augustus Von Hautt raised his telescope to his eye and watched…

Chapter 28

The landlord of the Fox and Hounds was obliging enough,…

Chapter 29

Her mouth was warm and passionate, and he kissed her…

Chapter 30

Valentine opened one eye. The room was still, apart from…

Chapter 31

Marissa saw the house at last. It really did look…

Chapter 32

Old Doctor Arnold finished washing his hands in the bowl by…

Chapter 33

London was warm, and dusty with the rush of traffic…

Chapter 34

The private sanitarium was tucked away in a quiet street…

Chapter 35

That evening Marissa and her family dined at Valentine’s house…

Chapter 36

By the time they arrived at the redbrick building in…

Chapter 37

The little church was resplendent. Sunlight was shining in the…

Epilogue

It was warm, far warmer than an English evening. The…

 

Miss Debenham’s Finishing School
Graduating Ball
1837

M
arissa Rotherhild waited until the laughter and chatter faded. Olivia Monteith had stunned them all with her plan to marry Wicked Nic Lacey, and although she was excited for her friend, Marissa had her own news to share.

The five members of the Husband Hunters Club settled. All of them were from respectable and wealthy families—well, almost all—and all were expected to marry to please those families. The Husband Hunters Club had been formed because the five members found their fate disagreeable; they wanted more from life and marriage and they were determined to get it.

“I have decided on the husband I want for myself,” Marissa announced, when all eyes were upon her. “The Honorable George Kent.”

There was an awkward pause, not exactly the sort of response Marissa hoped for. Olivia reached to clasp her hand and her voice was earnest. “I know
George Kent is very handsome, and I am aware of several girls who have a tender for him, but Marissa, you are the cleverest person of my acquaintance and the Honorable George does not have the reputation of a learned man. Won’t you grow bored with him?”

“Olivia is right,” Tina Smythe spoke forthrightly. “George Kent is a social animal, hardly an intellectual. And he’s a flirt, isn’t he? Do you really want to marry a flirt, Marissa?”

“Of course not. You don’t understand. So what if he is a little forward? There’s no harm in it. He is fun, good company, and he makes me laugh.” Marissa’s lovely face grew earnest. “His being different from me is the point, don’t you see? I grew up in an atmosphere where laughter was rare and discussions at the dining table revolved around mosses in Scotland and lichens in Wales and the latest insect-eating plants to be discovered in the…the Amazon!”

She took a deep breath. “My parents are not here at the graduating ball tonight. Do you know why?”

The girls glanced at each other and shook their heads.

“They are on an expedition to the Continent, to investigate a rare fern which has been seen growing in the crevices of the Pyrenees.”

Marissa blinked back sudden tears and shook her head. “I understand their passion, really, I do. I could be the same, if I let myself. But I want to be different, don’t you see? I want a husband who will make me laugh rather than impress me with his knowledge of botany. I want a husband who will bring the sunlight into my life. And I believe with all my heart that George Kent is the man to do that.”

Lady Averil nodded in agreement, but Eugenie wasn’t so certain. “You are a bluestocking, Marissa, we all know that, and although I agree that sometimes opposites can attract, they do not always end happily ever after.”

“Yes, yes,” Marissa said, impatiently tossing back an ebony curl. Her dark eyes glowed. “If this was a whim I would agree with your concerns, but I have met George several times.” She blushed under their sudden scrutiny. “Lately he has been attending my parents’ botanical evenings and he always singles me out. He appears to enjoy my company as much as I enjoy his. Indeed, sometimes he makes me quite giddy,” she added, with a secret smile.

“George Kent attending botanical evenings?” Olivia repeated, raising her eyebrows in wonder.

“His brother, Lord Kent, is an authority on roses,” Marissa explained, “although I have never met him. He keeps to himself and spends every moment studying his chosen field. George more or less brought himself up after his parents died and he was left in his brother’s care. So you see, in many ways, we have a great deal in common.”

Olivia smiled. “And I see you have considered your choice very thoroughly, dear Marissa. I’m sorry for doubting you. I suppose the next question is how do you intend to hunt and capture George Kent?”

“Well,” Marissa met their curious eyes, “I have been invited to his house in Surrey next month for a weekend party, so I should think there will be plenty of time for hunting while I am there. The only problem is that my grandmamma will be chaperoning me, and she tends to be a little…overwhelming.
I don’t want her to frighten George off before I can marry him.”

The girls exchanged glances. They’d all met Marissa’s grandmother. Lady Bethany came from an era when life was far more liberal and unfortunately she wasn’t reticent about describing her Bohemian escapades, most of which today’s more moral society considered very improper. Marissa, who loved her grandmother dearly, knew how confronting she could be to those who had never met her.

“Perhaps I can lock her in her room,” she murmured to herself, and then blushed when she realized she’d spoken aloud.

“George will just have to get used to Lady Bethany if he becomes part of your family,” Eugenie said firmly.

“I’m sure George won’t mind,” Marissa replied quickly. “It is his brother who may decide to take offense. Lord Kent, from what George says, is old and very stuffy.”

Olivia raised her glass. “I want to make a toast. To the Honorable George Kent, and may Marissa find her heart’s desire and marry him!”

“To Marissa and George!”

Solemnly the toast was drank, and another member of the Husband Hunters Club was set upon the path to her future.

Or so she thought….

Abbey Thorne Manor,
Surrey, England

T
he first Lord Valentine Kent knew he had guests was when his butler, Morris, told him so. Not that Valentine even knew Morris was hovering behind him until the butler loudly cleared his throat, a signal that he had been waiting for some time to be noticed. Valentine frowned, the magnifying glass in one hand, the specimen of
rosa foetida
on the table in front of him. The single yellow flower had arrived this morning from one of his contacts, carefully packed, but the sea journey had caused some damage—salt water stained a corner of the box and the inside was damp. He’d recognized the flower immediately and with the familiar pang of disappointment.

There was a second parcel, as yet unopened, from a name he didn’t recognize. Valentine did not find this unusual. He received letters and parcels from all over the country containing specimens or descriptions of specimens for him to name. He was one of the leading experts on roses. But his true pas
sion was one particular rose, a rose which was first brought to England seven hundred years ago. It was his quest, his Holy Grail, his lifelong ambition, and he had an uneasy feeling that it was becoming an obsession.

Morris cleared his throat even more loudly. Obviously the man wasn’t about to go away. With a sigh of frustration, Valentine turned to face him. “What is it, Morris? I warn you, it had better be a matter of life or death.”

“I apologize, my lord,” Morris droned, his bloodhound face drawn down into apologetic lines. “I am always loath to interrupt you when you are busy, my lord. But there is a young lady here to see Mr. George—”

“Then, Morris, I suggest you fetch Mr. George.”

“Believe me, my lord, I have tried,” Morris replied with feeling. “Unfortunately Mr. George can’t be found, and yesterday he was most specific that when this particular young lady arrived she must be treated with courtesy.”

Valentine sighed again. Damn George! Why wasn’t he here? The last thing Valentine wanted to do was make polite with a stranger. No doubt she was one of George’s silly little flirts, all hair and no brain. George had inflicted someone similar on him once before and he’d made his younger brother swear he would never again invite anyone to Abbey Thorne Manor without first informing Valentine and allowing him enough time to escape to his rooms, or, if necessary, to leave the house altogether.

“Who is this young lady who must be treated with courtesy?” he said gruffly, rising to his feet
and shrugging his dark blue jacket back on over his white linen shirt, allowing it to settle comfortably across broad shoulders.

Morris gave him a glassy look.

Valentine was used to his butler’s silent disapproval when it came to his preference for comfort over fashion. The jacket was an old favorite and a little shabby, the top buttons of his shirt were undone, and he’d neglected to put on a neck cloth this morning. Well, he told himself irritably, it was just too bad. George’s flirt could take him as he was or not at all.

“Her name, Morris.”

“Eh, Miss Marissa Rotherhild, my lord,” Morris said, dragging his eyes away from his master’s ragbag appearance. “She’s in the yellow parlor—”

“Rotherhild, Rotherhild…Why do I feel as if I know that name?”

Frowning, Valentine set off at a brisk stride, down the stairs and along the gallery, in the direction of the inappropriately named yellow parlor.

His thoughts turned back to George. The boy needed a firm hand and a tight leash and Valentine, his elder brother and in many respects a stand-in for their father, had always done his best. But now that George was of age and had come into his own money he did very much as he liked. If the boy would take an interest in something other than horses and gambling and women, Valentine would breathe a sigh of relief, but so far George showed no signs of doing so.

Not that there was any malice in him. Good-tempered, smiling and handsome, George was in
no way a bad person. He was, if anything, too good-natured and easygoing. Valentine, who’d grown up during the war with Napoleon, couldn’t remember ever being as young as George sometimes seemed to be. Of course George thought
he
was far too stuffy and serious. Valentine always disputed it but now he wondered if there was some truth to George’s accusation. With a frown he tried to recall the last time he’d laughed for the simple joy of living, and found he could not.

Morris darted ahead of him, slightly out of breath, to open the parlor door. Valentine hardly broke stride as he entered the rather chilly room where George’s young lady was waiting. His eyes narrowed as he realized, with annoyance, that there were actually two women. One elderly and rather regal, with graying dark hair and a pair of black eyes with a surprisingly unladylike expression in them as she surveyed him. And the other…

The other was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

For a moment he stood and stared, at a complete loss for words. His shocked and startled gaze noted her thick, curling dark hair, fastened up in some deceptively plain style beneath a jaunty little bonnet, her skin—smooth and pale as cream—with a tempting smidgeon showing where her dress buttoned below her throat. She lifted her head to stare back at him, her large brown eyes framed by sweeping lashes, and her lips opened slightly, like unfurling rose petals.

“Miss Rotherhild, my lord,” Morris murmured at his side, as the silence stretched on.

Valentine realized he was being rude, and worse than that, his thoughts had turned poetical. The last time they did that…Well, he’d sworn never to allow it to happen again.

“Miss Rotherhild,” he said, sounding gruff. There was a pulse beating in his head, and a warmth spread over his body, making him aware of every inch of flesh and blood and muscle. Of being male and very much alive.

“Lord Kent.” Miss Marissa Rotherhild was watching him with a serious gaze and she came forward, holding her gloved hand toward him.

Valentine stared at the hand until he felt a slight bump against his back—Morris of course—and hastily took her fingers in his and raised them automatically to his lips. Her glove, and the flesh beneath, smelled of violets and woman.

“George…eh, that is, your brother invited me to your house party this weekend, my lord.”

Through the fog in his brain Valentine made sense of her words. “House party?” He belatedly dropped her hand and spun around to fix his butler with a piercing look. “Morris, what is this about a house party?”

Morris paled. “My lord, I swear I know nothing of any house party! I would not dare allow such a thing to occur without your permission.”

Marissa Rotherhild glanced at her elderly companion with some anxiety.

“Where is George?” Valentine went on in a grim voice. “Find him, Morris.”

Morris managed a shaky bow before trotting hastily away on his mission.

When Valentine turned back to face the room, he found two pairs of dark eyes watching him with an intensity that was unnerving. “I’m sure we can sort out this misunderstanding as soon as George can be found, Miss Rotherhild and…eh…?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Marissa said, “I beg your pardon, my lord. I haven’t introduced my grandmother, Lady Bethany.”

Valentine found himself under scrutiny from the lady with the lined face that had once been as beautiful as her granddaughter’s. “How do you do, Lord Kent? You have a fine old house. People with houses like yours should open them up. If you’re not having a weekend party then you should be.”

“I prefer my solitude, Lady Bethany.”

Marissa surveyed him seriously from beneath her little hat. “I hope you won’t be too cross with George, Lord Kent. It must be a misunderstanding. I’m sure he would never do anything to upset you on purpose.”

“George is a thoughtless young pup,” he retorted sharply.

She blinked. “Oh no, you’re wrong about your brother. He’s…he’s quite wonderful.”

She blushed deeply as she realized what she’d said, and her elderly companion hid her mouth with a gloved hand, as if she might be laughing.

Valentine had never been jealous of George, he had no reason to be, but now there was a strange tightening in his chest. Marissa Rotherhild was too good for his thoughtless brother. Suddenly, Valentine found himself considering ways to steal her all for himself.

 

Lord Kent was not at all like George, Marissa thought in bewilderment. George was always fashionably dressed, neatly turned out to the last button, and here was Lord Kent looking as if he’d been sleeping in his clothing. He hadn’t shaved, either. Marissa could plainly see the prickly stubble on his jaw, the same honey color as his hair, which was also rather long and untidy. Her fingers itched to comb it back from his brow and, surprised by the strength of that urge, she folded them into tight fists, just in case she actually acted upon it.

“George has clearly made a good impression on you, Miss Rotherhild,” he was saying, with a note in his voice that made her think he might be making fun of her.

“I’m sure George makes a good impression on everybody he meets, Lord Kent,” she replied rather coolly.

“My daughter and son-in-law are under the impression George is an enthusiastic botanist,” her grandmother spoke behind her. “He is invited to all their meetings and has been attending regularly.”

Lord Kent’s eyes widened. They were very blue, Marissa thought. Piercingly so. In fact, she could not recall ever seeing eyes quite that spectacular shade of blue. Someone had once described the Aegean Sea to her, and she thought that perhaps Lord Kent’s eyes were that exact color.

“George interested in plants?” he cried. “Good Lord, whatever next?”

“Do you mean the boy isn’t an enthusiast?” Lady Bethany said with a touch of satisfaction. “I thought
as much.” She sank down into a brocade covered chair, evidently tired of waiting to be asked by Lord Kent who seemed to have forgotten his manners.

“George never said he was an enthusiast, Grandmamma,” Marissa said, casting her elderly relation a quelling glance.

“Well he certainly gave a good impression of one,” her relation retorted, completely un-quelled. “Professor Rotherhild was even considering taking him on a trip to see the lichen in Yell.” She shuddered. “That’s in Shetland, Lord Kent, and a more windswept and godforsaken place you would be hard-pressed to find.”

Lord Kent, who had been listening to their exchange in silence, suddenly spoke. “Rotherhild! I knew I had heard the name before. Of course. Professor Rotherhild is one of Britain’s foremost experts on lichens and mosses.”

“My father,” Marissa said quietly. “My mother prefers insect-consuming plants. She has several in the conservatory and feeds them with—”

“Please, Marissa, I beg you, don’t remind me.” Again her grandmother shuddered. “My daughter does not take after me, Kent. I cannot think where she got her love of such unpleasantness.”

Lord Kent’s lips twitched and he looked down into Marissa’s face with those eyes. “And what is your specialty, Miss Rotherhild?” he asked her in a deep voice.

“I have no specialty, Lord Kent.”

“Well, that is a pity.”

“I find that being in the presence of my parents
has dulled my own enthusiasm for botany. George says…” But she remembered in time that what George had said wasn’t very complimentary to his brother, and changed the sentence to, “George says not everyone feels the same way about plants.”

“Does he indeed?” Lord Kent fixed her with his piercing gaze, as if he knew she wasn’t telling the entire truth.

He was correct. The truth was the first time she’d met George he’d said that growing up with Professor Rotherhild, in her case, and his brother, in his, had instilled in them a fierce determination to keep as far away as possible from anything even vaguely resembling a plant.

“Your brother?” she’d asked George, surprised and pleased that they had something in common.

“He’s an obsessive rose collector, Miss Rotherhild.”

“At least roses are attractive to the eye, and the nose.”

“Oh, but the thorns!”

They’d laughed, and Marissa had felt as if she’d finally found someone who understood her predicament. And, indeed, as they conversed she learned that he had grown up in similar circumstances, suffering through dinners where heated discussions took place over obscure plants and hardly being noticed at all while her parents read aloud from the latest paper on their favorite subjects. Her grandmother sympathized but she didn’t really understand. For her, other people’s foibles were amusing, grist to the mill of her caustic tongue, but Marissa
was unable to laugh at her parents’ peculiarities. She felt ignored and isolated, even though she knew they did not mean to be cruel. Now George had made her feel she wasn’t entirely alone.

Indeed, it was as if she’d found a soul mate.

That was why it had been so important for her to come to Abbey Thorne Manor for the weekend party. George was the man she wanted to marry, she was absolutely certain of it, and when he’d extended the invitation she’d been determined to use the weekend to convince him that she was the perfect woman for him.

And now he wasn’t here to greet her and from the way Lord Kent was acting it was possible there may not be a weekend house party taking place after all. George had mistaken the date or, worse, forgotten her.

She was reminded, painfully, of the day her parents forgot to arrange her tenth birthday party, so engrossed were they in their latest find, and she had to explain to several disappointed friends that there would be no food and no cake and no games. The echo of her humiliation was still fresh as she’d faced the pity and scorn in their eyes.

Lord Kent sighed. Marissa glanced up, startled, wondering if he’d read her feelings in her face. He was staring at her with something like sympathy, but to her relief he did not ask her what the matter was.

“Do sit down, Miss Rotherhild. If anyone can find George then it is Morris—he knows all my brother’s hiding places. We will soon unravel this mystery.”

Marissa perched on the edge of a chair beside her grandmother and clutched her reticule in her
gloved fingers. Lady Bethany reached out and gave her hand a squeeze.

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