Nominated for an RT Reviewers Choice Award: Historical K.I.S.S. Hero of 2010.
A Gayle Wilson Award Finalist.
Most Eagerly Yours - Book #1 in Her Majesty's Secret Servants Series
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Signet (March 2, 2010)
Raised on their uncle's country estate, the four orphaned Sutherland sisters formed a close friendship with the young Princess Victoria. Shortly before her coronation as queen, Victoria asks the sisters to serve her in matters requiring the utmost discretion.
They are to become her secret servants...
Laurel, the eldest, is the first to be called. The Queen is threatened by her jealous cousin, George Fitzclarence, who is known for speaking treason. She asks Laurel to pose as a wealthy widow and use her charms to win George's trust, then find out what he is really plotting. Laurel is prepared for the risks of acting a part, but she encounters an unexpected and formidable obstacle in the Earl of Barenforth--George's friend and a notorious rake, whom Victoria has warned her to avoid...
An undercover agent for the Home Office, Aidan Phillips, Earl of Barensforth, is on the trail of a financial hoax involving alchemy, murder...and George Fitzclarence. When a lovely young widow wanders into his path and turns his well-laid plans on end, he senses she is hiding something. Aidan is no stranger to seduction, or to the wiles of beautiful women. And he intends employing wiles of his own to uncover the lady's secrets...
As soon as the frigid air hit Laurel 's skin, she realized her mistake, yet the stone terrace overlooking the backs of nearby buildings offered a haven she could not resist. The terrace stood empty, and as the din of the ball faded to a muted hum behind her, she welcomed the chilly air against her cheeks. She tugged off her cream satin gloves and leaned her hands on the balustrade.
Behind her, the door opened. "Good evening. It is Mrs. Sanderson, is it not?"
Laurel whirled and pulled up short at the sight of him .
He stood framed in the doorway, the light behind him gilding his silhouette and draping his face in shadow. Nevertheless, she recognized the Earl of Barensforth immediately. No other man stood as he did, tall and solid and steadfast, with broad shoulders and a bearing she could term only . . . noble. However fanciful a description, she could not help thinking it.
Her heart clamored, then stood still, then clamored again as he stepped toward her like the hero of a beloved fairy tale walking off the timeworn pages.
"Yes, it is Mrs. Sanderson." On his lips, her false name took on a world of meaning, of innuendo. Tingles showered her spine. He raised a hand, the light from inside glinting off an object grasped in his long fingers. "I thought perhaps you could use this."
When Laurel merely gaped up at him like a fox at the hounds, he reached for her hand and pressed a champagne glass into her palm.
"I thought only tea and punch were served here."
"Madam, spirits are always available in the card room. Drink. It will revive you."
She obeyed with a small sip. He was right. The bubbles tickled her throat, instantly making her feel more alert and not nearly as overheated.
No, the flush warming her skin now had nothing to do with the sweltering crush inside, and everything to do with how Lord Barensforth's eyes held her, traveling a leisurely course across her face and her bared décolletage.
"Thank you." She inhaled, her breath audibly trembling. Why did he make her feel so capricious, so unlike herself? Until this instant, she had even failed to notice a highly pertinent detail. "How do you know my name?"
"We have a mutual friend." He smiled with a quirk of his lips she remembered from Knightsbridge; now, as then, her pulse leaped at the sight of it. "Beatrice Fitzclarence. She pointed you out to me."
"Did she?" Good heavens. How ironically inconvenient for Lady Devonlea to bring her to the attention of the one person Victoria most wished her to avoid. "If you'll excuse me, sir, I must return to the tearoom. Lord Wentworth will-"
"I shouldn't worry about him. His own fault for abandoning you as he did. Any fool could see you were feeling unwell."
"Lord Wentworth didn't abandon me," she clarified. "He went to find me something to drink."
"It looks as though I have beaten him to it. His loss." His voice dipped. "And my gain."
Was it? His attentions left her flustered. It had been for George Fitzclarence's benefit that Victoria had meticulously selected her wardrobe to emphasize her very best features-her blond hair, her slim figure, and, yes, her supposed wealth. Her amber gown was of the finest-quality silk; her slippers, reticule, and fan had been purchased at Bond Street 's most exclusive shops.
For all the bait they had set, had she hooked the wrong fish?
Unless . . . had the Earl of Barensforth followed her outside because he recognized her from that long-ago summer's day? The day he had saved her from being trampled in a crowd.
Apprehension sent a forced rush of blood to hum in her ears, throb in her temples. She pictured herself as she had appeared to him then: bonnet gone, coif devastated, dress torn, face streaked with dirt. She herself had hardly recognized the image staring back afterward from the glass above her dresser. Surely, then, he did not recognize her now.
Even so, she guarded her face with another sip of champagne, then started to go inside. "Thank you, but I must rejoin-"
He shifted, blocking her path. "Beatrice tells me your dance card is full. A pity. You really ought to dance with me."
She stopped short, nearly colliding with his chest. "Oh, and why is that?"
"I'd spare your feet a good deal of mistreatment."
The candid observation made her laugh in spite of herself. "You noticed that? How horribly embarrassing. I'm afraid the fault was entirely my own. I confess to being a hopeless clod on the dance floor."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Sanderson, I think not. I watched you dance. You were perfection."
He had watched her? The knowledge made her insides flutter.
"Everyone watched you. Or hadn't you noticed?"
She hardly knew what to say, so she said nothing and shook her head.
His hand-the same powerful hand that had once reached through a crowd for her-beckoned now. His proximity made her feel as though she were back in the ballroom crush, heated, pressed in upon, breathless. The darkness carved his features with a brutal beauty. His ebony tailcoat, ivory knee breeches, and glowing white shirtfront seemed sculpted from the smoothest stone.
"With your permission, may I prove a point?"
"I . . . that depends entirely on the point you intend making."
His smile became devastating in its exuberance. "Can you hear the music from here?"
"Of course I can hear the music. I am not deaf, sir."
He relieved her of both the champagne glass and the gloves she still held in her other hand, and set them on the balustrade. When he returned, he positioned himself toe to toe with her, his wide shoulders and broad chest blocking out everything beyond, including the safety to be found through the doorway.
His left hand claimed her waist, settling open-palmed just above her hip. His other hand closed around hers. Heated awareness pulsed through her as she realized that he, too, was gloveless, that his palm lay brazenly naked against her own.
"Madam, prepare yourself as we endeavor to discover the full extent of your talents."
Before she could think of a response to that bit of cheek, she found herself swept in smooth, flowing circles, the crisp breeze filling her skirts, stirring her hair, and uplifting her soul.
He partnered her flawlessly, even over the bumpy flagstones, never once stepping on her foot . . . never once looking away from her eyes. His own eyes, shadowed and fathomless, smoldered with unspoken suggestions, untold implications. She felt keenly aware of everything about him: his superior height, his muscular build, the searing brand of his palm at her waist. . . .
The notion struck her-stunned her-that they were doing something more than dancing, something much more intimate, more sensual.
As abruptly as they had begun, they came to a halt. Or rather he did, catching her in his arms when she stumbled from lost momentum. His hands slid to her shoulders and he held her at arm's length.
"I do see what the problem is. You, Mrs. Sanderson, do not dance as other women do."
"Yes, I told you. . . ." Her heart sank at the prospect of having proved his earlier conclusion sadly wrong.
Laughing, he shook his head. "You are no clod, Mrs. Sanderson. But most men will have a devil of a time keeping up with you because they fail to understand the obvious. Am I mistaken, or do you prefer to lead ?"
Laurel 's eyebrows shot up. "Is that what I am doing? I never realized. . . ."
His observation made perfect sense. All her life, whenever she had practiced dance steps with her sisters, she had always assumed the lead. She was the eldest.
"Mystery solved, I suppose." She laughed ruefully. "I must learn to curb my assertiveness."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Sanderson. I fervently beg you not to do that."
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