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Authors: Samantha Holt

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so small.”

“Yes, miss,” Jenny replied.

“Aren’t there any bigger ones?”

“No, miss. This is the master’s one.”

Viola tapped a finger to her lips as she eyed
the tin bath. She was hardly the largest of women but she was tall. How would
her legs fit inside that tiny thing?

Jenny poured in another bucket of water and
handed it back to the maid who was bringing warm water up from the kitchen. The
other maid looked to be a good few years older than Viola and not up to the
task hauling bucketful upon bucketful of heated water from downstairs. She
suspected that by the time the bath was full, the original water would be cold.

“Do you not have indoor plumbing?” Viola
couldn’t resist asking. It was an inane question because surely if they did,
they wouldn’t be running back and forth to fill her bath.

But she was entirely baffled by the lack of taps
and baths. A house like Lockwood Manor would have all the latest in modern
engineering surely? The vast building with its impressive columns, high
ceilings and utter decadence had taken her breath away but she really had been
expecting it to be less... old. And certainly less draughty.

“These old houses aren’t easy to modernise,
Miss,” Jenny explained. “Only new houses and hotels have indoor plumbing. I
expect you have it everywhere in New York.”

“Well, yes, actually.”

“We do have it in London—not that I’ve ever been
there, but my brother has. It must be wonderful to live in a city like New
York. I’d love to visit it one day.”

Viola sat down on the four-poster bed and gave
the mattress an experimental bounce. It was soft—very soft. As old as the bed
probably. “It’s exciting but I do like your countryside. There’s no green
fields where I live.”

“Green fields are dull.” Jenny swirled about the
bath water with a hand and looked to her. “I’d far rather be surrounded by
shops and huge buildings.”

The other maid returned with another bucket.
Jenny poured it in, gave it a swirl and stepped back to eye the bath. “We have
no bath oils or salts, I’m afraid. The lord threw out everything like that
after his last wife died.”

His last wife? She knew he was a widower but
hadn’t realised there had been more than one. How awful, losing two wives. He
had written little about his wife in his letters, save that she had died just
over a year ago. Was he still in mourning? Did that explain his surly
countenance? And if he was, why had he implied he wished to marry her? Viola
resisted the desire to put her head in her hands or probe Jenny for
information. That would be the crass thing to do and she was trying to prove
herself. If she could show that she was marchioness material, perhaps he would
warm to her.

No doubt he had been expecting something else
from her letters. Someone refined and intelligent perhaps. Viola was certainly
not simple but she always felt she expressed herself better in writing. Was he
disappointed in her?

“Shall I help you undress, miss?” Jenny asked,
interrupting her thoughts.

“No!” She smiled. “I mean, no I can manage,
thank you.” She’d certainly never needed anyone to dress and undress her. She
wasn’t going to start now.

“Very well. If you need anything, just pull that
rope there.”

“Thank you.”

Jenny backed out of the room and Viola finally
gave into the urge to throw herself back against the bed and lay an arm over
her face. If she became a marchioness, would she have to let people dress her?
She shuddered—and not from the cold. In a house full of boys, privacy had been
a rare thing so she treasured it when she had it. She was the only one with a
separate room growing up—at least until her father made his fortune in coffee
and moved them into a beautiful house with rooms enough for all of them. Except
for Ralphy who had left home by then.

Fatigue made her lids heavy and she forced her
arm back and her eyes open. The excitement and anticipation had left her,
leaving her drained. Adding that to the chill in her body and she felt almost
ill. And Viola Thompson never got ill.

But she had imagined this differently. Yes, the
grand old house was more breathtaking than she could have dreamed possible, and
Lord Lockwood certainly affected her breathing too. But there had been no
romance, no being swept off her feet. She had anticipated him seeing her,
falling desperately in love and carrying her up to his bedroom to make love to
her then and there. Then they would get a special licence and marry as quickly
as possible. How envious her friends would be to hear she was a marchioness.
How dreamy her life would be to live in England, married to a lord.

She was a romantic fool. Her father would blame
all the novels she’d read of England. She had hoped for her very own Mr Darcy
but it wasn’t to be.

Well, he certainly had that aloofness she might
have expected from an English gent.

Pushing herself up, she drew off her necktie and
unbuttoned her shirt. She flung it aside then thought better of it. Viola
retrieved it and hung it over the sky blue chair in one corner. She paused to
peer out of the window. The nice thing about living in the middle of the countryside,
she decided, is no one would care a whit that she was standing in only her
corset and skirt. For many miles, huge green fields stretched out. From here
she could see over the oaks that surrounded the house and spotted a few
scattered cottages, presumably belonging to the farmers.

How much of this land was Julian’s? She had
researched his family as much as she could, spending hours looking at his name
in Debrett’s, but knew only that he was around the fourteenth richest man in
England. She had to assume then, that much of this land was his.

As she slipped off her skirt and began to unlace
her corset—something she was very adept at having grown up without a maid or
mother—she pondered the other properties she knew he owned. Would he take her
to Kent for the summer perhaps to stay in the house by the sea? Or up to
Scotland so she could explore the mountains and castles?

She put her corset on top of her shirt and
removed her skirt and combination. A chill swept across her skin. Jenny had
apologised for the temperature of the room, explaining they didn’t light fires
in the rooms that weren’t to be used. Though a fire now blazed in the hearth,
casting golden light over the tin bathtub, the room hadn’t warmed yet.

Viola dipped a toe into the water and sucked in
a breath. It wasn’t freezing but it certainly wasn’t as warm as she liked. To
immerse herself in that seemed unbearable. How did these English women put up
with these conditions? They had to be made of sterner stuff than her. Holding
in a breath and drawing up her shoulders, she stepped fully in and sank down

The lukewarm water enveloped her and she bit
back a curse. She favoured bathing in water that was almost boiling. Her
brothers always teased her so for it, telling her she’d turn into lobster if
she wasn’t careful. But still, she would manage. She ducked under the water
quickly and came up for air. Jenny had laid out her toiletries nearby so she
reached over for her block of rosemary soap and rubbed it vigorously through
her hair. After days of travel, she felt the need for a good scrub and of
course, she wanted to look beautiful for Julian.

She laid back in the bath for a moment and let
the soap soak into her hair. Would he ask her to marry him formally? Had he
changed his mind? That man who wrote those letters was under that stern
exterior somewhere. She simply had to weed him out.

And once she had, she, Viola Thompson—once a
nobody, now an heiress—would marry the Marquess of Lockwood and live happily
ever after.


pondered his reflection. Then he pondered the woman who was a whole wing away
from him. At least twenty bedrooms separated them. He grimaced at the sight he
presented. Why he should care what this crazy American woman thought of him, he
didn’t know, but the idea of having her in his house forced him to wash and
dress in a more presentable manner. He still forwent his necktie, however.
After all, this was his own damn house and he could dress however he pleased.

But he did want her to like his appearance.

Perhaps because he liked hers. He liked a lot
about her which was ridiculous. Their letters back and forth had been one of
the more enjoyable moments in life. They discussed so many aspects of life from
music, to family, to duty. He never expected to find her on his doorstep,
however, expecting him to finalise the details of his arrangement with her
father. Why come all this way for a simple business deal? It made no sense. Was
it some sort of American etiquette to do deals face-to-face?

Either way, she couldn’t stay. He hadn’t shared
the house with another woman—with the exception of his staff—for over a year
and he might have little reputation to protect but he certainly didn’t want to
make it any worse. It was already hard to hire staff as it was.

Not to mention, he didn’t want her ruined. As
annoyed as he might be with having his leisurely day interrupted, he had grown
fond of the woman he’d been writing to and would never wish her harm.


Another reason she had to leave. He was
dangerous to women. So far only his wives, but who knew if that could extend to
female friends? He only hoped his mother didn’t get wind of Viola’s arrival.
She might think she was another potential bride for him. He didn’t care if he
died without an heir. With six younger brothers, there were more than enough
Cynfell men to go around. Besides which, once his mother found out she was
American, there would be no end of questions and concerns. He wouldn’t put it
past the old woman to put a stop to any further correspondence.

He smirked at his reflection. A marquess being
bullied by his mother. He wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last. The
marchioness had strong ideas of tradition and they certainly didn’t include one
of those ‘money-grabbing, uncouth Americans’ charming her son. If she had to
intercept his every letter, he knew she would.

Julian ran a comb through his hair and slapped
on some cologne. At least his head was a little clearer now, and he could work
out the problem that was Viola Thompson. She couldn’t stay in the local inn
alone. Christ, he couldn’t believe she didn’t even have a bloody lady’s maid
with her. If she was his, he wouldn’t let her out of his sight. Anything could
have happened to her.

Except she wasn’t his. She never would be. He
hoped to keep up their letters once his business deal with Mr Thompson was
completed. A relationship by letters was something he could manage, for surely
even he, as cursed as he was, could do no harm to her if she was on the other
side of the ocean.

He turned to eye the tabby cat currently curled
up on his pillow. “You shall have to come and meet her. You’ll like her.”

Patches opened one eye, gave his master a
disinterested look and closed it again. Julian shook his head. The two things
he enjoyed in life were his cat and Viola Thompson’s letters. In the dead of
night, when he was at his loneliest, that purring creature and a re-read of her
bright, intelligent penmanship usually got him through. And when it didn’t,
that was when he turned to the drink. He certainly preferred the after-effects
of the letter and the cat though.

“Let us see if we can’t make a better impression
and find somewhere for her to stay. Perhaps Mrs Whittleworth will know of
someone who can play lady’s maid at the inn.”

The cat buried his head deeper into his tail to
indicate his annoyance at having his nap interrupted. Julian gave the cat a
brief pet and retreated before Patches got too angry. He would find the
housekeeper, ask her about finding someone to employ for however long Viola
needed someone and be sure to have dinner arranged. Perhaps he could ensure
Miss Thompson wasn’t too angry with him by way of a good hearty meal. He really
didn’t want to ruin their friendship with his terrible mood.

Julian made his way down to the bottom of the
house and weaved through the corridors to the kitchens. The few maids milling
about dipped their heads and one of the footmen stepped aside and greeted him.
The aroma of boot polish mingled with that of freshly baked bread. He found the
housekeeper in the servants’ dining hall, polishing the cutlery.

She glanced up. “Good afternoon, my lord. I hear
we have a visitor.”

“We do indeed. Can you make sure a decent meal
is served tonight?”

“Will Miss Thompson be staying long?”

“Only tonight, I hope.” He pressed his hands to
the back of a chair and leaned forward. “Mrs Whittleworth, do you know of any
girls in the village who are in need of work?”

The slender older lady gave him a look that he
knew meant no. Mrs Whittleworth had worked for his father and he still recalled
the days when she’d had dark hair instead of salt and pepper locks and her face
had been relatively wrinkle-free.

“None of them will come here, my lord, you know

He sighed. Yes, he knew that well. The locals
were a superstitious bunch who had never set foot outside of the village let
alone the county. He had the touch of death, they said. Those who worked in his
house would all meet terrible endings. While he might have a tendency to drink
and stay behind closed curtains, he was a fair master and good lord. He did his
best to run things well, even when he’d been lost to despair. But that didn’t
matter. All that mattered to them was that he had lost three wives.

“What if they only needed to stay at the inn? I
need someone to accompany Miss Thompson.”

“Whatever for?” She placed down the fork she was
holding and gave him a look. “You have enough space here and Jenny can act as a
lady’s maid. There will be no shame in it as long as she has Jenny on hand.
Besides, she’s American, is she not? They don’t stand upon ceremony as we do.”

“She needs to leave,” he said tightly, gripping
the wooden back of the chair.

The housekeeper’s shoulders rose and fell in a
heavy sigh. “Don’t tell me you are starting to believe the rumours too?”

Julian didn’t answer. How could he? What would
he say?
Yes, I believe it. I’m cursed. I’m no good for women.
Hell, half
the population of the village had started to believe he’d had a hand in his
wives’ deaths which was preposterous, especially considering Mabel had been two
counties away when she’d been killed.

Two counties away and in the arms of a lover, he
thought bitterly.

If something happened to another woman, he would
never forgive himself.

“I’ll send one of the boys down to the village
shop to ask.” She picked up another fork and waved it at him. “But be pleasant
to this American lady. Don’t scare her away. You’ve spent too long avoiding
women—avoiding everyone—and it will do you some good to spend some time with

Julian frowned at her. If it wasn’t for the fact
she was like a second mother to him, he’d have thrown her out on her arse. None
of the other servants would dare speak to him like that. And what did it matter
if he didn’t want company? Did it harm anyone if he avoided social events?
Really they should be grateful he spent his time attending to estate matters
rather than devoting time to London society or dining with all the local
families. Unlike some of his brothers.

He pressed away from the chair and tried not to
huff. “Just make sure a decent meal is prepared and I will be as gracious as I
can be,” he promised.

Whether his limited manners would be enough to
make up for his greeting, he didn’t know. Visitors—even ones with a liking for
cats and beautiful hair—made him shudder.

By the time he had paced about the library for
quite a while, circled the drawing room several times, checked that no signs of
his debauched evening existed any longer and given in to the annoying voice in
the back of his head that told him he should put on a necktie and a dinner
jacket, it was late evening and dinner was served.

Mrs Whittleworth had managed to create a spread
worthy of a large dinner party. He grimaced as he eyed the platters and the
large pheasant in the centre. He strongly suspected his housekeeper was guilty
of matchmaking. As much as he enjoyed writing to Miss Thompson, he had no
intention of doing anything other than continue to write to her.
Correspondence—now that was the sort of relationship he could have with a
woman. No fear of her coming to harm at a distance.

Julian circled the long table—currently only set
for the two of them. It seated twelve normally with himself at the head of the
table. The shining walnut piece of furniture hadn’t seen that many guests since
his second wife who loved to entertain. A jab of agony shot through him as he
recalled her at his side, radiant and laughing. She had always enjoyed company
and tried her best to persuade him to enjoy it too. It was an image that was so
far from the last memory he had of her.

Now Miss Thompson would take her place. Funny
how he could see her there much more easily than he ever pictured his third
wife. Drawing in a lengthy breath, he drew out his chair and sat. Hands twined
together, Julian ran his gaze over the gilded candelabra in the centre of the
table, then up to the chandelier hanging above. No doubt Viola would appreciate
the elegance of the room and the extra feminine touches the housekeeper had
added. He noted several fresh bouquets scattered about the dining room.

Half-an-hour later, and with dinner getting
cold, Miss Thompson had yet to arrive. Arms folded, Julian tapped his foot and
glanced at the mantel clock. Where in the devil was she? Damn her, keeping him
waiting like this. He had better things to do with his time like... Well, he
knew there was something that needed to be done, he just couldn’t think of it
at this time.

Jenny had informed her what time dinner was.
There was no excusing this. Was this an American thing? Arriving fashionably
late? If so, it was a bloody rude thing to do.

Heated anger began to rise under his skin. He
tried to inhale a deep breath through his nose and let it abate but it didn’t
work. He hadn’t even wanted to eat dinner with her so why was he so incensed?

“Damn this.” Slamming back the chair, he rose
and flung down his napkin. “Damn her.”

Julian stalked out of the dining room, through
the drawing room and into the hall. He wasn’t even hungry now. He’d go back to
the library and she could eat alone if she ever turned up.

But a footstep on the stairs made him pause and
swivel. Ideas of eating alone and telling her exactly how he felt about waiting
for her dissolved. The cream gown she wore caught the light of the lamps,
almost blinding him. When she took a few more steps down and beamed at him, he
wasn’t entirely sure his vision would return fully. He opened and closed his
eyes in quick succession to ensure he was seeing her properly. He felt as
though she had taken a dagger and jabbed him right in the heart.

The neckline was square and low, giving him a
perfect view of her high breasts. Her hips swayed naturally from side to side
as she descended and the satin gown was cut to highlight that slender waist.
Layers and a train enhanced any curves she might have and for some inane
reason, the heeled shoes she wore captured his attention. In the same colour as
her gown with delicate bows on the front, he found himself imagining drawing
off those shoes one at a time and kissing the arches of her feet before
slipping down her stockings and lavishing attention higher up.

Julian gritted his teeth. If he wasn’t careful,
he was going to shame himself.

It seemed to take an eternity for her to reach
the bottom of the stairs. She offered him a shaky smile. Did he make her
nervous? She hadn’t appeared one bit intimidated by him earlier. That wasn’t
really his intention. But neither was wooing her, as Mrs Whittleworth hoped.
Better that he set down some simple rules and let her know that her stay was
only going to be brief—just until he could find someone to look after her
outside of his house.

“Good evening,” he said hoarsely. If only it was
anger making his voice sound as though he’d been gargling sand. No, it was
something much, much worse.


He’d long admired the Viola Thompson he knew on
paper. He enjoyed her strong opinions—a sharp contrast to his wives’—and her
passion for England and its history. But now he found himself admiring the
reality of her. The rapid rise and fall of her breasts against that neckline...
Good God, he found himself silently begging for one of those pert globes to
escape the tight confines of her bodice. Never had he been so enraptured by one
movement of the body. Up and down. Up and down. His pulse quickened in time
with her breaths.

Which were incredibly rapid.

He dragged his gaze back up to her face, bracing
himself for a look of disgust at his far too obvious perusal of her. Instead
she had a glazed look to her eyes.

BOOK: Rogues and Ripped Bodices
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