The house of Winchester is set on its ear when Thomas, a distant cousin of the recently deceased Earl, arrives to assume his role as Lord Winchester. In addition to an elegant London home and a luxurious country estate, Thomas inherits Lady Katherine, the widow of the former earl.
Lady Katherine, herself the daughter of an earl, is horrified that a barbaric American will be not only the new lord of the manor, but also responsible for her future support and livelihood. Lady Katherine is determined to maintain her position in society and equally determined to ignore the brash American. That is, until their passions override their good judgment.
When a scandal erupts and forces them to marry, Thomas uses both tenderness and discipline to prepare his wife to face society and regain her good name. Will this fine English Lady surrender to the American?
Solicitor Percy Whitmore studied the man seated across from him. Although his dress and manner were not inappropriate, they were hardly what one would expect of the newest Earl of Winchester. Regardless of Percy’s opinion of the man, as solicitor for the estate, duty required him to explain this man’s unexpected change in circumstances in the clearest possible terms.
“The estate consists of a home here in London which is fully staffed and Aprilvine Park, the ancestral home located in Hertfordshire. It is an expansive estate which includes many tenant farmers for whom you, as Earl, are responsible.”
The man to whom he spoke sat in stunned silence for a moment. “Are you saying all of those things are mine?”
The solicitor smiled and tried to hide his pique. Americans always acted like they had never heard of British traditions. “It is not yours outright, my lord,” he tripped a bit over the title, but like it or not, this man was the rightful heir to the title and as such he became the solicitor’s most prominent client. “The estate is passed down through the family to members of the male line. During your lifetime, you shall have the use and governance of the estate and its profits, but you may not sell assets without consent of the trustees.”
The newly minted earl sat up straighter in his chair. “And just how much are these ‘profits’ you mentioned?”
The solicitor was taken aback by the boldness of the question. “It would be difficult for me to give you an exact figure,” he said, diplomatically, “but I believe you will find the living quite comfortable.”
Thomas, the Earl of Winchester, shook his head from side to side in slow disbelief. “To tell you the truth, Mr. Whitmore, I had myself convinced this whole thing was some sort of big mistake or a prank, though who would go to so much expense to make a fool of me, I do not know.”
“I assure you, sir, this is all quite serious. The duties of the Earl of Winchester are numerous and there are many people whose livelihood will depend upon you.”
“Why? Did I inherit some children?”
“No, my lord, the tenants on the estate. They work the land, which is owned by you, and in exchange they pay a portion of their profits to the estate. But it will be up to you to manage the estate, the grounds and the fields, in order to ensure their success.”
Thomas’ brow furrowed. “You told me my cousin died a year ago. Who has been running things since that time?”
“There is a steward who manages the day-to-day operations. In addition,” here the solicitor paused, unsure of how much to share with Thomas of his new life, “Lady Katherine Winchester, the dowager countess, your cousin’s widow, continues on at the estate and, I understand, is very much involved in the management of the estate. ”
Thomas cocked his head to one side. “Dowager? Is she infirm?”
Percy sighed and hoped his annoyance did not show. “No, my lord. Dowager refers to the widow of an earl. It has nothing to do with age or infirmity.” Had he elaborated, he might have mentioned that Lady Katherine was known to be an energetic and lively participant in London social gatherings, or at least she had been before she entered a period of mourning for her husband, though he believed the proper period of time for a respectable mourning had passed.
“What shall become of her?”
Here the solicitor paused, peering over his steepled fingers at Thomas, before he answered. “That,” he said, “would appear to be up to you.”
The new earl raised his eyebrows in a silent quest for explanation.
“She has no family. Her mother is now deceased, so Lady Katherine is quite alone. She does have a small income of her own which is the result of monies settled upon her by her family when she married. As the dowager, she is entitled to continue on as a member of the household, though where she resides is up to you.” The solicitor shuffled some papers on his desk.
“Are you saying she and I will live together?”
Yet again, the American’s directness stunned the solicitor. “I assume that is one option. I believe currently the countess has a hired companion who lives with her, for the sake of propriety. In most cases, the dowager is set up in a separate, smaller household, of her own,” he said. “Unless she remarries.”
“So why is what happens to her up to me? I am not expected to marry her, am I? I inherited my cousin’s title and estate, but I’d like to select my own wife, if I ever decide I need one.”
“Of course, Lady Katherine is not property to be inherited. She is a lady, in every sense of the word.” The solicitor felt the color in his face rise at the suggestion that such a fine, and beautiful, woman would be included in an estate like a clock or family Bible.
“I believe we have covered all of the documents which needed your attention, my lord,” the solicitor said, changing the subject. “If you would like, I would be happy to travel with you to your new London residence and make the proper introductions.”
Thomas looked the solicitor up and down, scanned the pile of papers on his desk, and stood up. “Thank you, but I believe I would prefer to make my own introductions.”
As the man left, the solicitor felt a pang of regret. Watching Lady Katherine and this man’s first interaction would have been the highlight of his day. If not his whole week.
Thomas stood on the walkway outside a large home on a corner lot, checked the address on the paper in his hand, and charged up the steps to the front door. He hesitated and considered knocking. Earls do not knock on their own doors, he thought, and entered unannounced.
He paused to take in his surroundings. Polished marble covered the hallway, which ran the length of the townhouse. A mahogany table in the entryway contained a silver dish to hold calling cards. A card with the name Lady Arnold sat atop the stack in the salver.
Female voices could be heard from a room to the left. An experienced hunter, he approached his prey on footsteps muffled by thick rugs on the marble floor. He paused to listen.
“An American! Oh, Lady Katherine, how will you stand it?”
“I do not know. I am sure he is quite savage. They all are, you know.”
“Barbarians. I heard Lady Margaret Smith-Smythe’s husband forced her to receive some distant relation of his and the level of their vulgarity forced Lady Margaret to take to her rooms for a week after they finally departed.”
“They made such a fuss about being independent and not wanting to be part of our country, why can they not simply stay away?”
“Exactly!” The other woman said. “But,” her voice became more serious, “what shall become of you? He is now the Earl. He could force you out of your home, could he not?”
Lady Katherine sighed. “Yes, such is true. I am in quite a precarious situation. Fortunately, he has not arrived yet. I will continue to enjoy myself until I am forced to deal with him.”
“You do enjoy yourself as much as possible,” Lorena said, and Thomas detected a note of envy in her voice. “When is he expected?” Thomas heard the sounds of plates and silverware being moved. “This cake is delicious.” Apparently her friend’s situation had not dimmed her appetite.
“No one knows when he will arrive. Those Americans,” she practically spat the word, “they know nothing of consideration for others or decorum in general.”
Lorena shuddered. “I pity you. Will you be required to socialize with him?”
Katherine shrugged. “My role is certainly unclear. I should hope to be able to go on living my life without interference, though I do not know if such will be possible. Much depends upon this man.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“I shall win him over the same way I did the last Earl of Winchester.”
“Lady Katherine! What a thing to say!”
“A woman has few options available to her, Lorena,” Lady Katherine said. “With Charles, my virtue and beauty appealed to him. Since my virtue is no longer intact?”
“And has not been for quite some time,” laughed Lorena.
“Hush!” Lady Katherine joined the laughter. “I shall use other methods to secure my position.”
What kind of fool does she take me for? Thomas stepped around the door and prepared to enter the room to confront the two women in the midst of their disparaging remarks, but the appearance of one of them stunned him sufficiently to stop him in his tracks. He surmised that the woman nibbling a piece of cake was Lady Arnold, which meant that the other was Lady Katherine Winchester herself. Although seated, he could see she was taller than average and regal in her bearing. Even the way she sipped from her tea had an air of distinction to it.
Beyond that, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Shiny black hair crowned her head yet soft tendrils framed her face. Dark eyes and red lips stood out from her fair complexion in dramatic contrast.
The way her mouth caressed the edge of the fine teacup in her elegant hand made him wonder how it would feel caressing him. The mere sight of her tongue as it slid over her crimson lips had set his manhood off in a manner that he found most distracting.
He stepped back into the shadows behind the door and retraced his path until he found himself back on the sidewalk in front of the house.
First order of business will be better security for the house, he thought as strolled around the block.
Second order of business: show Lady Katherine there’s a new earl in town.
Lady Katherine bid adieu to her guest. She had not realized how much she missed the company of others now that her companion, Mrs. Thatcher, had gone to care for an ill sister. Katherine expected her back within a week.
The idea that she needed a companion had not sat easily with Katherine, but upon the death of her husband, it was the expected thing to do. A single woman, even a widow, could not go traipsing about unaccompanied.
She retired to her room to rest before dinner. She had come to love her private sanctuary at the London house, nearly as much as she loved her suite of rooms at Aprilvine Park. Her husband, Charles, had indulged her every whim and she had used his accommodating nature to her advantage, creating a sumptuous boudoir filled with comfortable furnishings in the most luxurious fabrics available.
She ran her fingers along the heavy velvet curtains attached to the posts of her bed. It was not simply the opulence of her surroundings that meant so much to her, but the security that they represented.
The only daughter of an earl, she had grown up in luxury and indulgence. Her brother had inherited the title, but soon gambled away most of the assets set aside for the care of Katherine and her mother, which left Katherine’s unsurpassed beauty as the only real asset she and her mother had to support themselves. Her mother had guarded her daughter’s virtue like the treasure it was until Charles, the Earl of Winchester, had fallen madly in love with Katherine.
Charles had been an attentive and kind husband and Katherine found that over time she had grown to care for him very much. Her deepest regret was her inability to conceive an heir.
Not only had it saddened both Charles and Katherine to be childless, but because the estate was entailed upon the male line, sudden widowhood had thrust Katherine into the role of dowager, and without any relationship or affinity with the new earl, she assumed he would consider her as simply an extra responsibility to be dealt with as expediently and thriftily as possible.
She could live out her days in the role of dowager countess, but even the mere sound of it was too dreary and uninspired to consider. Life was meant to be experienced and enjoyed. There were balls and concerts to attend. Gossip to be shared. How she longed to promenade along Hyde Park in a fine new dress and hat. She had performed the requisite period of mourning for her husband and the social season was just beginning. She had no intention of sitting on the sidelines.
Her best option was to find a new husband?no small task, even for her. For one, although still beautiful, she was no longer a maiden. Secondly, her inability to conceive had not gone unnoticed by the eligible gentlemen of her acquaintance.
Beauty, without fertility, would only get her so far.
And finally, now that she had experienced life as Lady Katherine Winchester, how could she possibly be satisfied with any other existence?
Her fate, over which she had no control, rested upon the whims of an uncultured American.
She had flirted her way into the good graces of the most desirable men of London society. One silly American ought to be wrapped around her finger in no time.
After a second trip around the block, Thomas found his pulse, and other parts, had returned to normal. Still, he continued down the street rather than to the front door. He needed time to think.
A small park at the end of the block provided a respite. Even the fashionable residential neighborhood contained significantly more congestion than he was accustomed to and the noise made clear thinking difficult.
Or maybe the thought of unpinning the luscious cascades of Lady Katherine’s raven hair had him distracted.
This was ridiculous. Although assuredly a man, he was not guided by his libido. His whole life had been directed by good sense and hard work and one haughty woman whom he had only glanced at from outside a door would not derail his judgment.
He strode from the park, returned to the house?his house?and rapped on the door with authority.
Katherine examined herself in the mirror before joining her dinner guests in the parlor. She found nothing wanting. She never did.
Inside the parlor, several friends were already chatting and sipping wine. She worked her way around the room greeting her visitors and engaging in social niceties to make them each feel welcome. The consummate hostess, her invitations were coveted by all the finest people.
Two men conversed in the corner. She recognized Lord Hardwick, an eminently eligible man of good breeding, but not his companion. At a small dinner gathering such as this, she was surprised someone, particularly a gentleman, would bring an unannounced guest. However, well-schooled in the ways of a proper lady, she composed her features to betray nothing and welcomed the two men to her home.
She curtsied to Lord Hardwick, favored him with her best smile, and said, “Would you be so kind as to introduce me to your companion?”
Lord Hardwick appeared to be confused by the request, yet he complied. “Lady Winchester, may I present the Earl of Winchester.”
It took a moment for recognition to settle over her, but when it did, her face went pale and her mouth hung open in an unladylike gape. A surprised look from Lord Hardwick reminded her to compose herself.
She turned to the new earl and curtsied. He bowed, though she could not help but notice a slight smirk at the corner of his mouth and a glint of challenge in his eyes. “So pleased to meet you,” he said, his voice warm and sultry, though the accent was unlike anyone else’s in the room.
“And I, you.” She faltered briefly, before adding, “Lord Winchester.”
He laughed a loud, indecorous sort of laugh. “Please,” he said, “Call me Thomas.”
She gasped. Such vulgarity. Such familiarity. It was unheard of.
“Your proper title is Lord Winchester.” Shoulders squared, she did her best to hold his gaze. Katherine did not like to step away from a challenge and something in her gut told her this man reeked of challenge through and through.
Eventually he lowered his eyes, but instead of looking away, he studied her, paying particular attention to the rise of her breasts as they pushed against the fabric of her gown. She felt a flush begin to spread over her and quickly attempted to distract him?and herself.
“We did not expect you so soon,” she said, struggling to keep her voice detached.
“It is not every day a man learns he has become an earl,” he said, his voice languid, his eyes continuing to appraise.
“The entire situation was a surprise to many.” Her chin jutted out in an involuntary show of insolence.
“I arrived several hours ago and was told you were resting. Since I did not wish to disturb your ladyship I spent the time in the library sending letters to friends in America describing the beauty of my new home.”
His new home. The idea of it made her stomach churn.
She scanned the room, wondering where Lord Hardwick had disappeared to. She did not care to speak with this American, yet she appeared to have no choice but to be polite since she now noticed that many eyes were upon them.
“Forgive me,” Thomas said, his tone altering to a respectful one, “I have not expressed my condolences on the loss of your husband.”
??“Thank you,” she said. “I miss him. He will not be easily replaced.”
Thomas cocked his head to the side and quirked an eyebrow while looking around at the gathering. “You do appear to be deep in mourning.”
Suddenly, faced with this impudent man, she missed Charles more than she had in weeks. He had been all eagerness and solicitude. This man, this new earl, embodied impertinence and audacity. She could see it in the set of his jaw, the twinkle in his eye, and the smirk he fought to keep from spreading into a full out grin.
No matter. She was a lady and she would comport herself as such. “It has been over a year since Charles’ death. This small gathering of friends shows no disrespect.” She stared into his eyes. “If any behavior has been disrespectful it would be the actions of a man who entered a home and a private gathering without being invited.”
He held her gaze while he sipped from his wine. His eyes never left hers until they slid down her throat and again, took in the swell of her breasts, then took another slow trip back up and continued their scrutiny. He lowered his glass and said, “I know I am not fully informed of all the customs here in London, but I did not expect a man would require an invitation to his own home.”
Katherine could not form a reply before he continued. “In fact,” he said, “It would appear as though you are now my uninvited guest.”
What had been intended as a quiet gathering of friends for dinner and games had turned into the most nerve-wracking evening of Katherine’s life. All because of that American. Perhaps she would call him Thomas as he requested. It was improper, but not nearly so offensive as the idea of calling him Lord Winchester. She could not stand to think of referring to him by that title.
The man was insufferable.
For one thing, his presence had severely curtailed her plans to engage the interest of Lord Hardwick. It seemed as though Thomas, the pretender to her husband’s title as far as she was concerned, intended to thwart her at every turn.
First, he had insisted that he escort her to dinner.
After dinner, he hosted the men for brandy and cigars. The gall. Admittedly, he was technically the host since the home, and title, now belonged to him, yet his audacity set her on edge.
As much as it angered her when he offered her his arm to go to dinner, her fingers still tingled at the memory of the feel of his powerful muscles, distinct even through the fine fabric of his jacket, under her touch. Now, as she prepared for bed, she wondered what it might feel like to have those arms wrapped around her in a powerful embrace.
Stop. This is ridiculous. She shook her head to banish the thought. Not that she did not intend to seduce him at some point, but only if absolutely necessary to secure her position in the household and society. For now, she had to keep her wits about her. Her survival depended upon it.
No more thoughts of the way his slightly-too-long hair curled over the collar of his jacket. Or his mouth, ever in a state of near smirk, or so it seemed whenever he looked at her. As though he knew something about her.
Or wanted to.
No, she would have no further thoughts of Thomas Winchester other than as an obstacle to be tackled and managed.
She most certainly would not think about his eyes. No, she would not. No more thoughts of their piercing blueness or the soft wrinkles at their corners when he smiled.
Her hair twisted into a soft braid, she laid her nightgown across the foot of her bed and climbed between the sheets naked. Though highly shocking and unladylike, she had begun the practice during the heat of her first summer after marriage and had found it so delightfully freeing, the only time she was ever without the long skirts and layers of garments which propriety required. It suited her rebellious nature.
Fortunately, her maid was discreet and not easily flustered, though for her sake Katherine often slipped into appropriate sleep attire if she woke during the night.
Despite her prior admonitions to herself regarding further thoughts of Thomas?she refused to consider him Lord Winchester?she could not help herself. Although he had not done anything inappropriate, she could tell he was not like the simpering, bowing, blustering men of her acquaintance.
This American exuded maleness in every sense of the word. And probably a few senses of which she was unaware.
The crisp sheets chafed across the peaks of her breasts, bringing her nipples to hardened arousal.
Her husband had been gone for a year. Prior to his death, their marital congress had been infrequent and generally uninspired, though Charles had always been enthusiastic and appreciative.
Despite her many flirtations, Charles had been her only lover. She had resigned herself to a lifetime of merely sufficient sexual encounters with her husband. Once she had produced an heir, she had intended to seek out, discreetly, a more skilled paramour. Somehow she knew deep in her being that lovemaking entailed more than she had experienced. And Katherine hated to be left out of anything.
She raised her left hand to stroke her fingers over the deep red of one swollen nipple. Her right hand worked the flesh of her other breast, kneading its weight with her fingers. She imagined the feel of strong, male, work-hardened hands performing the same sensuous task.
Soon the warmth from her breasts spread down her stomach to form a deep pit of desire. Her legs thrashed between the sheets as heat pulsed into her female core.
The hand which had been tweaking her nipple to dizzying heights left that task and was buried deep within her slick folds.
She knew she ought to stop. It was sinful and unladylike to pleasure herself in this way. Yet, after a stressful evening in the presence of her husband’s replacement, she felt compelled to finish the task.
With the fingers of one hand she plunged in and out of her wet core. She used the other hand to stroke her fingers across the nub of her desire which swelled and hardened against her touch.
She closed her eyes and began to writhe on her way to a climax. Guttural moans worked their way up her throat and out her mouth.
It had been quite an eventful day. Even in a lifetime of eventful days, this one stood out from all the others.
For one thing, despite his doubts about the authenticity of the letter announcing his inheritance, he had been assured of its accuracy.
Next, the true nature of his role as Earl of Winchester became more clear to him. The extent of the estate and his duties might have been overwhelming to a lesser man, but Thomas never backed away from a challenge.
And finally, he was now sharing a home with a woman who intrigued him with her beauty, sensuality, and fiery spirit.
Yes, this day was noteworthy.
Thomas studied his new bedchamber. Opulent scarcely described it. In addition to the elaborate furnishings and d?cor, he noted with favor that his clothing and other belongings had been unpacked and stored around the room.
He could get used to this.
Yet, beyond the realization that he was now master and lord over a vast estate, his thoughts were focused on one black-haired woman. The level of his distraction did not please him.
Emotional attachments only lead to trouble. He had been given an opportunity for a fresh start and he did not intend to allow his heart to get in the way.
Just a few weeks ago, he had watched as a wildfire destroyed acres and acres of his crops as well as his home and barn. Although he had sufficient money in the bank to rebuild, when the letter from the London solicitor had finally reached him, he decided it was an omen for him to try a change of scenery.
Well, Lady Katherine Winchester was definitely a bit of scenery he enjoyed.
He envisioned the way her breasts pressed against the neckline of her gown, shades of rosy nipple slipping into view when she took a particularly deep breath. It had been all he could do to keep from taking her in his arms and plunging his tongue between the creamy swells. When he could stand the anticipation no longer, he would free those luscious breasts from their confines and suckle and tug until she moaned in ecstasy.
His vision felt so real, he would swear he could hear her moans, and he grew hard at the sounds of her desire.
Wait. It was her voice. Not moaning, but crying out.
He walked toward the noise and found a door that had escaped his notice previously. Assuming she was under attack from marauders, he flung the door open and charged into her adjoining room.
Movement on the bed, also the source of her voice, caught his attention. He strode there purposefully and yanked back the covers, prepared to do battle with whatever scalawag was assaulting her.
Eyes closed in ecstasy, Katherine bit her lip in an effort to stifle the erotic sounds escaping her mouth. The pleasure her fingers created in her loins grew from warm to hot to steaming hot and she welcomed the climax building within her like a summer storm on the horizon.
Just as she was about to cross over to a place of utter rapture, the covers of her bed were ripped away. As though she had been pelted with cold water, her eyes flew open and her mouth formed an astonished O as she looked up to see Thomas, her bedcovers in one hand, staring down at her. His face showing as much shock as she felt.
However, he recovered more quickly than she did. “So, this is how a proper English lady behaves?”
Still frozen in place, with both hands covering her womanhood, leaving her arms to squash her swollen breasts together, Katherine simply stared up into his eyes, which she noted had darkened with desire.
Ought she to press her advantage? Regardless, she refused to