A Groom of One's Own (The Writing Girls #1)(11) by Maya Rodale

The decidedly unsuitable Miss Sophie Harlow consumed an embarrassing number of his waking thoughts and all of his dreams. Very wicked ones, too.

Last night his dream began with a vivid recollection of the scene from his study, in which he held her in his arms, flush against him. Her bottom nestled against his arousal, and his hands resting upon her waist. It seemed he could feel the heat from her body, or had he been that hot with desire?

He dreamt that, as he held her, there was a knock at the study door.

She held that damned list in her little hand, and he tore it from her, crumpled it, and threw it aside. Someone persisted at knocking on the door.

In this dream, Brandon then proceeded to kiss her, beginning with the delicate skin at the nape of her neck. Even in his dream, he was aware that it was illicit and indecent. This being his wildest dreams, he did not care about propriety or decency but only about satiating his lust with Miss Harlow. So he caressed her: the ample curve of her hip and moving upward to the full swell of her br**sts, cupping them in his bare hands.

She sighed. He groaned in pleasure. The knocking at the door continued.

He was about to kiss her full, pink mouth . . . and then he woke up.

Dressing for the ball celebrating his engagement to the perfect Lady Clarissa was not the time to relive that dream, especially if his traitorous body was going to react as it did last night.

Would Miss Harlow be there as part of her story? It was quite likely.

His pulse quickened at the thought of seeing her. Again. Tonight.

To feel excitement at the prospect of seeing this troublesome Writing Girl or to have lusty dreams that he then proceeded to repeat and repent at his leisure was not acceptable. In his head, he began composing a list:

Things he ought to think about other than Miss Harlow:

1. His perfect fiancée.

2. The Parliamentary bill on tax policy reform that he would be introducing.

3. The plight of war widows and orphans.

4. The latest Waverly novel (for such books were his secret vice).

5. Dressing for his engagement ball.

Half dressed in his breeches and an unbuttoned shirt—and so heated from his lascivious thoughts that he did not notice the draft that was prevalent in all ancestral homes—Brandon picked up an horrendous scrap of pink satin.

With a curious expression, he turned to his valet.

“Jennings, what is this?” he asked, holding the offensive garment away from his person in one hand.

“It’s a waistcoat, my lord.”

“Yes, I can see that. Where did it come from? Don’t tell me I chose this for myself.”

Flowers had been embroidered in scarlet thread. If he selected this, he must have been deep into his cups at the time. Except that he never fell too deeply into his cups, for he had long ago learned exactly how much alcohol he could consume without making an ass of himself or feeling the aftereffects the next morning. He abided by that.

“The elder Lady Richmond sent it over for you to wear this evening, as to compliment the younger Lady Richmond’s gown,” Jennings explained.

“We need to match?” Brandon asked incredulously.

“It appears that Lady Richmond is of the opinion that you and your fiancée should appear coordinated in your appearances this evening.”

“I will not clothe my person in this horrendous item,” Brandon declared, still frowning at the thing. Pink? He could not wear pink. He certainly could not wear pink embroidered with flowers. He would be the laughingstock of London.

“Of course, my lord, you do not need to wear anything you do not wish to. However, it is advisable to placate your future wife and her mother-in-law. If I may be so bold as to speak from personal experience, one does not want to make an enemy of one’s wife’s relations. They make for unrelenting enemies that a man can never escape.”

“I see,” Brandon said. He had not been fully prepared for Clarissa’s parents. Her mother knew everyone and made sure everyone else knew about it. If her father conversed on a topic other than horse breeding, Brandon had yet to discover it. Still, he supposed it could be worse.

“But Jennings, your honest opinion—is this not the worst garment you have ever set eyes upon?”

“It is an abomination against good taste, my lord,” the valet agreed.

“I will give you five pounds if that thing suffers a horrible accident that renders it unwearable,” Brandon declared, handing it to his valet, who promptly threw it into the fire.

“Might I suggest the gray waistcoat instead, my lord?” he intoned.

“You certainly may. Thank you, Jennings.”

A few hours later

The Ballroom of Hamilton House

It was official: she was the future Lady Hamilton and Brandon. The announcement had been made, the guests had cheered and toasted with glasses of chilled champagne, and now the prospective bride and groom embarked on a waltz as hundreds of their closest friends and acquaintances watched on.

Clarissa desperately wished that she were anywhere else. She’d be an absolute wallflower if her mother would ever allow it.

“Are you enjoying this evening?” her fiancé asked.

“Very much, thank you. Are you?” Clarissa answered, following two of her mother’s rules: Always agree with the gentleman, and always ask him about himself. Implied was that she shouldn’t discuss herself, lest she bore him.

“I am,” he answered, and then he added, “You do look beautiful tonight, Lady Clarissa.”

“Thank you, Lord Brandon.” She didn’t use his first name, Henry. No one seemed to call him that, ever.

She noticed that he wisely wasn’t wearing the waistcoat her mother had selected for him. Sometimes her mother embarrassed her by what she said, or how much she said, or the gowns and, now, waistcoats she insisted were “so very much the thing” when they were anything but. Clarissa experienced a pang of jealousy that Lord Brandon could simply refuse to wear the offensive item and not suffer a harangue from her mother. She could never be so courageous.

After a moment of silence, Clarissa dared to hope that they could maintain this comfortable state of non-conversation. She started to relax, just a touch. Lord Brandon was a tall man with a manner of carrying himself that just radiated power, control, and dominance. He was so reserved, too. She never knew quite what to say to him, which didn’t quite matter since she often found herself too intimidated to speak anyway.

He did not facilitate conversation or attempt to deepen their relationship. Still, he was a good man. He would be kind to her. She would do her best to be a good wife.

Perhaps she could be silent and smile prettily while he could be impressive and ducal for the remainder of the waltz.

But then he spoke, and he asked the strangest question: “Do you think love is a requisite component of matrimony?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Do you think love is necessary for marriage?”

“My mother says that love is something that comes to a married couple in time. To fall in love before marriage is to risk all manner of foolish and dangerous behavior. In fact, I daresay my mother thinks love is a fatal disease,” she finished.

Her mother often told the story of her dear, departed sister Eleanor, whose passionate premarital love affair had led to her being socially ostracized, heartbroken, ruined, and dead. This ill-fated affair had profoundly influenced her mother and Clarissa even suspected her own life might have been drastically different if things had been a bit less disastrous for Aunt Eleanor.

There was a painting of the two of them hanging above the mantel in her mother’s private drawing room. Clarissa, her mother, and her late aunt were practically identical with their honey-hued hair, large blue eyes, and willowy figures. “If only Eleanor had lived,” her mother often said with a sigh. If Clarissa was anything less than perfectly obliging, a rare occurrence indeed, she was cautioned to remember her ill-fated Aunt Eleanor.

“I would not go so far as your mother to say that love is a fatal disease, but her point is taken. Love and passion lead to irrational behavior and poor choices,” he lectured. “However, an easy and affectionate relationship developing between a husband and wife seems to be a more desirable alternative.”

“I’m sure we shall be so blessed,” Clarissa said, because it seemed like the thing to say.

If Lord Brandon had asked what Clarissa had thought about love—which he did not—she would have told him that she did not know enough about it to make an informed decision. Her own parents barely tolerated each other. The library of Richmond House was devoid of any fiction other than the most tragic love stories. Poetry was forbidden. Plays were merely an excuse to attend the theater, and one never paid attention to the drama on stage but gossiped with one’s acquaintances all the way through. Clarissa had little reason to suspect that love was not a tragedy.

Sophie accepted a glass of champagne from a passing footman and turned away from the sight of Lord Brandon and Lady Clarissa dancing. She took a sip, savored the cold bubbles, and wondered what it might be like to waltz with him. She suspected that it would be heavenly, but refused to speculate further. It seemed sensible to avoid any romantic thoughts of him when she was trying to avoid all romantic feelings for him.

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