THE SCHOOL FOR BRIDES
By Cheryl Ann Smith
Release date: April 5, 2011
Publisher: Berkley Sensation
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It's never too late to live happily ever after...
Miss Eva Black spent her life concealing her mother's past as a courtesan. Now a spinster, her beauty hidden away under a dour disguise, Eva spends her days schooling courtesans to be suitable wives. But one vengeful duke does not appreciate Eva turning his mistress into a lady. He plans to seduce Eva into becoming what she detests: a courtesan. But he doesn't expect her to be a woman of such beauty and so many secrets.
I struggled when choosing an excerpt. I wanted something that would both intrigue my readers, and set the tone of the relationship between Eva and His Grace. So I decided to choose the first meeting between my disguised spinster and her dark and dangerous duke. Enjoy!
A wave of worry infused Eva. Strange men did not come here to see her without an invitation, either by accident or by design. Not even her male clients, who first had to submit to being blindfolded and then transported in a coach with blackened windows, under Harold's careful watch.
This nondescript townhouse was a safe haven for the women who chose to stay under this roof during their instruction, as some had fled abusive patrons. Their safety, as always, was first and foremost. When Harold was with Eva, a second butler, Primm, kept watch in the evenings. To have a caller at her door making threats was completely unacceptable and, well, shocking.
Eva smothered her anxiety and gathered her wits. "Did he present you his card or give you his name?" she murmured to Harold, thankful that his massive frame all but hid her from view.
"He did not," Harold murmured back, his jaw tight. "But he is no common man, Miss. His coat alone must have cost a year's pay."
A man who called without an appointment and wore expensive clothing? Her worry turned instantly to puzzlement.
Perhaps he was an escapee from Bedlam? Harold could well protect her were that the case.
But her girls and their privacy must be carefully guarded at all costs from the prying eyes of the neighbors. Bringing a Bow Street Runner to her door would be a disaster.
"Then I must grant him an audience." She forced a smile and turned to her ladies. "I apologize for the interruption, but there is a small matter I must attend to that cannot wait. If you ladies would kindly head off to the kitchen, Doris, my housekeeper, will give you your next lesson."
Eva watched as the brightly plumed birds paraded off. Once the door to the kitchen closed behind her courtesans, Eva proceeded down the hallway, her giant protector, the one person she trusted with her life and her charges, at her back.
One year ago, Harold had stumbled onto her doorstep, injured by a footpad in the mews near her home in Mayfair. He was dirty and rough, and clad in torn homespun clothing, his dark blonde hair matted with drying blood. Without hesitation she'd settled him in the servant's quarters and cared for his wounds, grateful for something to occupy her mind and keep her sane when despair over her mother's worsening health threatened to overwhelm her.
A bond formed between them during those two weeks while he struggled for survival. She never asked for his history and he never explained either why he wandered the streets in the middle of the night or how he'd found his way to her door. Harold repaid her kindness with fierce loyalty and friendship, and that was good enough for her.
"Did he give you any indication of his business?" Eva paused, and Harold moved around her to place his hand on the door handle. She scanned his hard face and for the thousandth time gave thanks for his comforting presence.
He shook his head. "Only that he wouldn't leave until he spoke to you." Their eyes met and Eva's stomach knotted at the concern in his expression. "I tried to run him off by informing him he had the wrong address. He was having none of it. The threats started when I tried to close the door in his face. I have a bad feeling about this, Miss Eva."
"This is indeed worrisome. I hope the man hasn't come to collect on Mother's old debts."
"Say the word, Miss Eva, and I will beat him senseless and drop him in a ditch somewhere."
In spite of the dire situation, her mouth twitched. "I think not. Something is amiss, and it will be best to find out the reason for his visit." She squeezed his thick arm. "Though, I shall keep the offer in mind should his actions require a firm hand."
Harold nodded. Despite his protective nature, he always did as she asked. So she quickly collected herself and lifted her nose when he pulled open the door and scowled darkly at the interloper.
"Miss Black, Sir." Harold stepped back one pace, still within arm's reach should the tall stranger decide to launch a surprise attack.
The visitor stepped from the darkness of the storm into the light spilling from the wall sconce in the hallway, then paused, his shadowed eyes fully on her. An intense stare beneath a sodden narrow-brimmed hat pierced through her. The man was clearly incensed over being left to cool his heels in the rain. He resembled a viper, coiled and ready to strike.
Eva's breath caught. Danger, and a mesmerizing sexual potency, emanated from this stranger's every pore. Like the slightly demonic and tragically handsome hero of a gothic novel, his cloak flapped in the wind and fury of the rising tempest behind him.
His brooding intensity left her uneasy. Yet, she'd not be cowed.
The stranger dragged a measuring stare down her body, then quickly reclaimed her gaze. It was impossible to read the thoughts behind his disarming eyes, but Eva suspected they weren't pleasant.
"State your business." Harold said over her shoulder. The stranger glared. He obviously had no patience with her servant. He'd been left to weather the storm on the doorstep and was likely chilled to his bones. Not exactly proper protocol when one calls on a household. But Harold was no common servant, and not above taking a bit of revenge for the threats against Eva.
"I'll not do it out here."
The man put a boot on the top step and Eva startled backwards into Harold's massive chest. The stranger brushed by her.
In the dim flicker of sconce light, the man gave her a more thorough perusal as he dripped a large puddle on the polished floor.
"You are Eva Black? Interesting." The timbre of his voice held no trace of warmth to take the edge off the ice in his green eyes. "You are not at all what I thought a thief would look like, though I suppose I am unused to thieves of the fairer sex. Truthfully, I am disappointed."
Thief? Her? She quickly pulled her mind from thoughts of gothic hero's upon storm-swept moors, and let her critical gaze drift down his body.
Thought not as tall as Harold, the stranger was taller than most men. He was draped in wool, and rain had stained his finely cut garments. It was clear to Eva that this was no debt collector, nor a merchant come to call.
From his square jaw, to the aristocratic cut of his longish nose, to the tips of his expensive boots, this man was the epitome of arrogant nobility.
She drew up to full height. "I fear you have stumbled onto the wrong stoop and the wrong woman, sir. I have stolen nothing from you."
His expression turned icy. "Do you think that I would lower myself to come to your door in this godforsaken storm if there were any chance I might be mistaken?" He paused and turned his attention toward Harold. "It took my investigator over three months to find you, and I will not leave until you've returned my property to me."
The situation became more puzzling by the moment. He spoke nonsense. But she was reluctant to draw the attention of neighbors by continuing the conversation in the open doorway.
"Very well." She squelched an impatient sigh. "We will speak in the library." Eva turned and led the stranger down the hall and up the stairs. She paused outside the door as he passed into the small room and leaned close to Harold. "Make sure the ladies are otherwise occupied until I've concluded this matter."
Harold scowled and clenched both fists. One word and he'd be on her visitor like a rabid dog. Unfortunately, bloodshed would ruin the gleaming floors.
"I do not like leaving you alone with him," Harold grumbled.
She patted his thick forearm. "I will be fine. Just keep the women out of sight. And have the footmen stoke the fire when we have finished. It's cold enough in here to make ice."
Drawing in a deep breath, Eva turned to meet her adversary. He stood near the fireplace and watched her cross the room. She was careful to keep a respectable distance between them, well out of arm's reach. Without Harold, she felt vulnerable.
"Now that we are alone, why don't you tell me who you are and what it is you want from me," she said tightly. "You have me at a disadvantage."
The stranger drew off his wet cloak and draped it carelessly over a high-backed chair.
"I do like to keep the advantage mine," he said briskly. "I gather you do not intend to offer me tea and cakes, Miss Black?"
The sardonic words raised her hackles. "Had you been invited, sir, I would have planned ahead for an afternoon of buttered scones and witty banter."
He responded with a hard smile. "Your appearance gave me momentary pause that I might well have received misinformation and arrived at the wrong house. But now, I have no doubt you are the woman I seek."
Without his cloak for added bulk, he was not as large as she expected. But he had broad shoulders that tapered downward to a narrow waist and hips, followed by defined and muscular thighs beneath well-cut buff breeches. He was a fine male specimen, though she assured herself, her that observation was only clinical, like examining teeth before purchasing a new carriage horse.
"Sir, though I have no qualms about standing around trading insults with you until the cock crows at dawn, I have other matters to attend to. I ask again, who are you and what do you want from me?"
"I am Nicholas Drake, The Duke of Stanfield."
Instantly, she knew his name and title, though she knew not why. Perhaps from society pages, perhaps from gossip in the market, but his introduction revealed he was no lesser baron or coachman, but a duke with all the blue blood behind the name.
He paused and glanced around the room. In this simple setting, with its pale green papered walls, musty old books, and a worn yet serviceable oriental rug beneath a matching set of chairs, he overwhelmed the space, and her, with his presence.
Once his perusal of the room was complete, he turned back to her and stared down his nose. "I have come for Arabella. If you would fetch her, we will be on our way."
Arabella? "So that is what this is about?"
The puzzle began to take shape. His name was familiar because he was Arabella's former lover. According to the girl, he was possessive and ruthless, though generous to a fault. Still, not once had he ever asked Arabella what she wanted for herself, and the courtesan's life was not her desire. She'd longed for love and children. She could get neither from His Grace. She was neither a virgin nor did she possess impeccable bloodlines to be his duchess. Mistress, yes. Wife, no.
When Arabella had tried to end the relationship, he brushed aside her wishes and bought her a half a dozen new gowns, expecting a new wardrobe to soothe her. But she had simply waited for her opportunity and disappeared, right out from under his arrogant nose.
The right decision, clearly. Everything Arabella said about His Grace had come to pass. He was possessive and ruthless enough to hunt her down. The girl was right to flee.
"I am sorry, Your Grace. Arabella is not here."
"Then tell me where she is, Miss Black. I want to see her. She belongs to me."
"Surely I am mistaken, Your Grace, but did you insinuate that Arabella is your property?" She widened her eyes innocently. "Is she what you claim I have stolen from you?"
"Arabella is mine and under my protection." His jaw pulsed. "This matter is none of your business, Miss Black. It is between Arabella and me."
"Of all the ridiculous notions, Your Grace!" Her body tightened with anger. "Perhaps you should have fitted Arabella with a diamond encrusted collar and kept her tethered her to your bed with a length of rope, after you trotted her through the park for fresh air and exercise like a pampered poodle!"
He stiffened and she went on, "The girl is not an object to be bought and sold like a mare or milk cow. She is a person, a human being. She was free to choose another path for herself. She has done so, and is no longer your concern."
Thunderclouds crossed over his face. He covered the few steps that separated them and loomed over her, rage etching lines on his face. "Arabella is mine."
Eva refused to be intimidated. "She is not yours, Your Grace. She was never yours."
A pair of large hands clenched and released at his sides, as if measuring her neck for size.
"That is her decision alone, Miss Black. Not yours. Tell me where she is. Now."
Eva froze. It would take only a moment for His Grace to snap her neck with his powerful hands before she could scream for help. "I cannot," she whispered. "She isn't here."
Undecided whether to call for Harold or bolt for the open door, in the end she did neither. He wouldn't cow her, no matter what he did to her. She'd show no fear.
His Grace expelled a breath through clenched teeth.
In that moment, she saw something deeper in his eyes than a man looking for his property. Before she could put a name to it, his face closed back up and he shoved one hand through his hair. Clearly, he wasn't about to risk years in Newgate for the chance to choke her dead.
She waited silently for him to settle himself and hopefully regain some sense. This was a smart man, a man of means if not scruples. Once he realized he had lost this game, he would trot off to his mansion, lick his wounds, and move on to his next conquest.
"If it is money you want, I have enough to purchase the chit back from you, Miss Black," he said low and tight. "Name your price."
Eva stared at him. She understood the notion of men of rank taking mistresses, though she despised the practice. It was a practice going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The institution wasn't about to change because of her opinion on the matter. But for this man to offer her money to buy back Arabella, made her angry all over again.
"How dare you come into this home and make such a boorish offer, Your Grace? Arabella is gone, do you understand me? Gone from London and never coming back. So you can hie yourself off to Almack's or Whites, or wherever dukes go to drink and gamble, and forget you ever knew her. She is no longer under your protection. The sooner you give up this futile chase, the sooner you can find a new courtesan to warm your bed."
Eva stood, chin upright; a tiny terrier facing down a tiger. No matter how he intimidated her, she would not be the first to look away. One sign of weakness, and he'd rip her to shreds.
Thank goodness he couldn't see the churning in her stomach or hear the rapid clip of her beating heart.
"I will find her, Miss Black," he said through gritted teeth. "When I do, she will happily return to my bed and forget the silly notions you put into her head."
It took strength of will to keep her fist from smashing him right in the nose. Never in her life had she met such a vexing and stubborn man!
"Silly notions you say? What, for Arabella to aspire to greater things than to be a plaything, a warm body, for a duke?" Eva lifted her hands lest he step forward. "And what of her husband and the baby she carries? Will you murder the captain and take the baby to raise it as your own? Will she accept the death of the man she loves and eagerly spread her legs for you because you command it, Your Grace?"
His Grace stepped backwards, almost faltered, if a man like him could falter. The arrogant beast looked as if she'd dumped ice water down his breeches.
"Arabella is married and with child?"
"I watched the vicar pronounce them man and wife, and a letter last week confirmed she is with child." This time, Eva did see emotion pass through His Grace's eyes before he turned his head away. Fondness? Regret? Though he considered Arabella his property, apparently the man had some affection for the girl. It explained his desperate search for her, and showed his heart wasn't entirely a black lump of coal after all.
Perhaps there was a human being beneath his cold, arrogant, and pompous exterior? Arabella had touched him in some way. Maybe there was hope for him. Unfortunately, Eva had neither the time nor the desire to find a shovel and dig for humanity beneath layers of aristocratic upper crust.
A life in America for Arabella with her beloved ship captain husband was her future now. His Grace would have to move on with his life without her. Even he wouldn't dare interfere with a marriage made in the eyes of God.
"As you can see, Your Grace, you cannot have her back." Eva said. "I am positive should you make your desire for a new mistress known about London, there will quickly be young women lined up outside your door."
If Eva expected resignation in his eyes when he lifted them back to her, she startled by the intensity and black rage she found there.
"I will not forget what you've done, Miss Black."
In the dim room Eva watched, transfixed, while he retrieved his cloak and jerked it around his shoulders. He said not another word as he stalked past her, nor when he gained the hall then the stairs, heavy footfalls marking his passage to the lower floor. She flinched when the oak panel door slammed closed behind him.
Harold found her rooted to the same spot moments later when he returned to her side and placed his comforting hand on her arm. His mouth screwed up with concern.
"Miss Eva," he said, and bent to peer into her face. "Are you ill? Did he hurt you?"
"Oh, Harold," she said softly when she finally found her tongue. She rubbed the chill flesh of her exposed upper arms and felt the same strange brush of cold air she'd felt earlier. "I think I have made a powerful enemy."
Debut author Smith makes a dazzling entrance to the romance community with a charming, sexy, innovative tale that sparks the imagination. There’s a bright future ahead of Smith, who has readers eagerly awaiting the next installment of her spinster ladies series. -- RT Book Reviews, April 2011
Smith's lively debut is chockablock with plot twists. Frowzy, pseudonymous Miss Eva Black runs a school and sanctuary for courtesans who wish to retire from carnal service. Part yenta and part Henry Higgins, Eva teaches the young women proper manners and matches them with eligible suitors. Her scheme is a success until Nicholas Drake, duke of Stanfield, shows up demanding the return of his favorite concubine and threatening to use all his wealth and power to destroy Eva. With her school, her secrets, and her principles at stake, Eva must grudgingly bend to his indecorous demand that she take his mistress's place. Naturally Nicholas cannot anticipate what a wildcat he has loosed, nor can Eva know how easily she will succumb to his charms. Historical details are few, but there's plenty of passion and intrigue. -- Publishers Weekly (Apr.) Reviewed on: 02/21/2011
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