Enter this giveaway to celebrate Annabelle Ander’s new release, Hell of a Lady! Pre-order for only 99c for a limited time by clicking here. Learn more about the book below, and read the first chapter exclusively here!
Will receive a mix of ebooks, signed paperbacks and swag – including a Victorian broach from Annabelle Anders! Winner to be announced on December 12, 2018 on Annabelle Anders’ Facebook page and via email!
Hell of a Lady – Releases December 12, 2018
“I don’t understand it, Emily! It’s not as though I’m any different this year. I’m the same person I’ve always been. Heaven knows my dowry’s as small as it ever was.” Normally, Rhoda wasn’t one to question good fortune, but the past year had turned her into something of a skeptic.
For upon her wrist, attached to the string her mother had tied earlier, Miss Rhododendron Mossant possessed a full dance card for the first time in all of her ten and nine years. Not once since coming out two years ago had she ever had more than a third accounted for.
Well, tonight, a masculine name was scribbled onto every single line.
“Likely something to do with you garnering Lord St. John’s notice last year. If a marquess finds you interesting…” Her friend and fellow wallflower, Emily, scrunched her nose and twisted her lips into a wry grimace.
The gentlemen of the ton, usually oblivious to her presence, had pounced upon Rhoda the moment she set foot in the ballroom, vying to place their names upon her card. Once they’d procured a set, a few even requested sets with Emily, although with less enthusiasm.
Rhoda had not gone out of her way to flirt or fawn over any of them. She wasn’t nearly as friendly as she’d been in the past. So, why now? The question niggled at her as she bent down to adjust her slipper.
The supper dance was next to commence, and her feet already ached. She hadn’t prepared to partake in such vigorous exercise this evening. Nor had her life prepared her to be the belle of the ball.
Rhoda peeked up to identify the owner of the polished boots that appeared before her. The voice sounded familiar, but she didn’t immediately recognize the rather fine-looking gentleman executing an awkward bow.
As she sat upright again, a flush crept up her neck and into her cheeks. Rhoda usually didn’t forget a handsome face. Blond hair, blue eyes, perhaps nearing the age of thirty. Ah, yes!
“Mr. White.” Mr. Justin White, the vicar. She stopped herself from gasping. She’d not met with him since the day Lord Harold died last summer at Priory Point, easily one of the worst days of her life.
Second only to the day she’d been informed of St. John’s tragic demise. She shivered as she pushed the thought aside.
“Please, sit down.” She indicated the chair Emily had vacated. Rhoda glanced around the room. Where had she gone?
Rhoda hadn’t much time as the next set was soon to begin. She’d promised this one to Flavion Nottingham, the Earl of Kensington, of all people. She could endure the vicar’s company until Kensington came to claim her. Mr. White was a vicar, after all. One could not simply ignore a vicar.
He smiled grimly and lowered himself to the seat. “I hope you are doing well.” He cleared his throat. If he felt as uncomfortable as she did then why had he approached her?
Likely, he felt the need to inquire as to her spiritual health. The collar he wore set him quite apart from the other more ornately dressed gentlemen.
And as for the condition of her spiritual health?
She would have laughed, but if she were to begin laughing, it might turn to hysteria. And quite possibly, she’d be unable to stop.
She wasn’t sure her soul would ever be well again. Not since that weekend Harold had fallen off the cliff. And less than a fortnight later, when a river of mud and rain had swept the steep narrow road near Priory Point into the sea, along with the Prescotts’ ducal carriage. St. John, his father, and uncle had all been riding inside.
“I am well. And you, Mr. White?” She slanted him a sideways glance. He’d been witness to Harold’s death that day, too. The men were all cousins, from what she remembered. Mr. White had nearly jumped into the sea to rescue poor Harold. He’d remained hopeful longer than anyone else. Even longer than Harold’s own brother.
Mr. White’s persistence may have had something to do with his faith.
“It has been a trying winter,” the vicar answered. “But with springtime, always comes hope.” He spoke sincerely. No mockery in his words whatsoever.
Hope was something she’d given up on. The greater a person’s hope, the more pain one experienced when disappointment set in. No springtime for her, just one long endless winter.
“Is it presumptuous of me to hope I might claim a set with you?”
Her heart fluttered ever so meekly. This handsome, kind, wholesome man showing interest in her… Laughable, really. She smothered any pleasure she’d normally have enjoyed upon his request.
Likely whatever had come over the rest of them affected him as well.
“I’m afraid, sir, they have all been spoken for.” When his eyebrows rose in surprise, she held out her wrist. She could hardly believe it herself. “I’m not fibbing, Mr. White! I wouldn’t lie to a vicar!”
He shook his head, not bothering to examine the card. Instead, he stared down at his own hands, clasped together at the space between his knees. His blond hair, longer than was fashionable, fell forward, hiding his profile from her gaze.
“I am to be disappointed then.” He spoke as though mocking himself but then sent her a sideways glance.
“Hope does that.” She couldn’t hold back the sentiment. “Eventually.”
He held her stare solemnly. “I would not have taken you for such a cynic, Miss Mossant.”
She turned to watch a few ladies promenading around the room. “Disappointment does that, you know. Too many letdowns tend to stifle one’s optimism.”
He scratched his chin. Perhaps she confounded him. She certainly wasn’t engaging him in typical ballroom conversation. She ought to be flirting. Complimenting him, widening her eyes, and feigning enthusiastic agreement with all his opinions.
“I’ll wager you’re an optimist.” She’d redirect the conversation back to him. “A man of God. Your prayers are likely given top priority.” She stretched her lips into a smile.
He did not smile back. Again, that sideways glance. Her heart jumped at the startling blue of his eyes.
“I seriously doubt it works that way, Miss Mossant.”
“It’s not an insult.” She’d be certain he hadn’t taken her comment that way. “Rather the opposite, really.” Those who were good deserved to have their prayers answered. He was obviously one of the good ones. At this thought, she remembered the desperation with which he’d climbed down the side of the cliff, hoping to save Harold.
Hope had driven him. Even then.
And he’d been disappointed. As they all had been.
He cleared his throat. “I’d like to think God does not favor any one of us over others. Are we not all undeserving? Are we not all sinners?”
“Some more than others.” She could not be in complete agreement with him. People discriminated. They passed judgment upon one another, upon themselves. And they were made in God’s image, were they not?
She met his gaze steadily and shook her head.
“You believe me naïve?” He raised his brows.
“I believe your faith gives you confidence. And your goodness.” Neither of which she could lay claim to. “But I suppose that is why you wear the collar. A true calling.”
Those blue eyes of his narrowed. “I hope someday you allow yourself to hope again. You are far too young to be so cynical.” His gaze, after searching her face, dropped to her bodice. “And too beautiful.”
She shivered. Her lack of hope had nothing to do with her age or her looks. Rather to the circumstances life had handed her. She would not thank him for the compliment. “And you a vicar,” she scoffed, feeling defensive at his comment. She didn’t like feeling vulnerable, and he’d somehow caused her to feel just that. Why had he chosen to sit beside her? What did he want?
He turned away from her, and, as though she’d voiced her thoughts, he seemed to decide it was time he stated his purpose.
“I do not wish to bring to mind unhappy memories, Miss Mossant.” He remained focused on the floor. “But I never had the chance to tell you how much I admired your composure and compassion on that dreadful day. I do not know that your friend could have endured it without your strength and comfort. I’ve often wanted to tell you this, and when I realized you were here tonight…” His throat worked as he swallowed what else he might say.
His words surprised her.
She barely remembered the accident itself, often dwelling instead, upon everything that happened afterward.
Their assembled group had been sitting atop the cliff, drinking wine and sharing a lovely picnic. Rhoda had been upset with St. John’s attention to another lady. Today, she could not even recall the woman’s name. Her presence, however, had mattered greatly at the time.
Lord Harold had been in a good-humored mood as he joked about falling into the sea, and St. John had goaded him, it seemed.
And then it was not a joke anymore. “It was all so senseless.” She spoke the words through lips that felt frozen.
Lord Harold had lost his balance and tumbled over the edge of the cliff. He’d been standing there, laughing one moment, and the next, he’d simply disappeared. He’d ceased to exist.
His wife of less than a fortnight, Sophia, had lurched forward, as though she would jump into the crashing waves below to save him.
Yes, Rhoda had caught her friend, held her back as Sophia sobbed and cried out her husband’s name.
“She is my friend,” Rhoda added into his silence. “I would do anything for her.” And she had. God save my soul.
What else was there to say?
“Miss Mossant, my set, I believe.” The words crashed into her thoughts almost violently.
Dressed in a cream-colored jacket and an embroidered turquoise waistcoat, the Earl of Kensington could not be more dissimilar to the vicar. His breeches were practically molded to his thighs, and she thought that perhaps he wore padding beneath his stockings. The heels on his buckled shoes would ensure that he stood taller than her, despite her own above-average height.
Rhoda had wanted to refuse him, but in doing so would have had to decline other offers as well. A lady could not deny such a request. Not if she wished to dance with any others that night.
Rhoda twisted her mouth into a welcoming smile.
Her friend Cecily wasn’t here. Regardless, she’d understand.
The despicable earl had lied and tricked Cecily into marrying him, and then betrayed her in the worst possible manner. Rhoda knew he was not to be trusted. And yet, here he stood, all affability, affluence, and charm.
Although Kensington had paid for his misdeeds, Rhoda could never forgive what he’d done to one of her best friends. He’d put Rhoda in an uncomfortable position. He should not have claimed a dance with her. He ought to have remained in the country with his new wife and baby.
If she refused him, she’d be forced to sit all other dances out.
Might as well get this over with.
She turned to Mr. White and nodded. “If you’ll excuse me, sir.”
She rose hastily, uneasy with the emotions the vicar evoked.
He remained sitting, unwilling, it seemed, to remove himself from the memory they had been reliving together. Scrutinizing her, he nodded, almost imperceptibly.
Regret caught at her to leave their conversation this way. She brushed it away. The past must remain in the past. For all of their sakes.
She dipped her chin, signaling the end of their conversation.
Placing one hand on Lord Kensington’s arm, she allowed herself to be whisked onto the dance floor for the lively set. Taking her position, she determined to forget the unnerving encounter with Mr. White. She ought to be having the time of her life tonight!
“Your looks are even more dazzling tonight than ever.” Lord Kensington stood across from her. His compliment only reminded her of what he’d done to Cecily.
“Thank you.” She’d appear sullen and prideful if she failed to respond. And others were watching them. Both the ladies and the gentlemen.
The music commenced, and he reached across the gap to take her hand. Thank heavens they wore gloves. Her skin might have crawled if she’d had to endure the touch of his flesh.
She wished he’d not singled her out this evening.
Dancers all around her smiled and laughed as they executed the well-known steps. Several ladies’ gazes followed her partner covetously. Despite his despicable past, no one could deny Lord Kensington was a most handsome and charismatic gentleman.
Initially, as they executed the steps of the dance, he kept his distance and did not attempt to hold her gaze for longer than was considered appropriate. The second time they came together, however, his hand lingered at her waist, and he brushed too close to her body for comfort.
“I cannot identify your scent, Miss Mossant.” He leaned his face into her neck. “Roses? But there is a hint of something else? Your own particular magic? Are you casting spells?”
The words struck her as more of an accusation than anything else. She did her best to widen the gap between them. His flirtatiousness set her skin crawling. He persisted in closing the distance between them and leaving his hand on her longer than necessary.
She hoped no one else noticed.
A lady’s reputation was all she had.
Except, he was an earl. Surely, he wouldn’t do anything to dishonor her in public. He’d mended his ways. The ton persisted in deeming him respectable.
A time or two, she caught Mr. White watching them with a scowl. Obviously, he disapproved. Of her? Or of her dance partner?
The question nagged at her.
She barely knew Mr. White. She hoped to never speak with him again, as a matter of fact. They had shared one afternoon, one tragic afternoon together, and each time she saw him, the terrible emotions of that day would resurface. Such a phenomenon did not lend itself to friendship.
Lord Kensington caught her gaze, and she stretched her lips into a smile. She’d always loved dancing, moving to the music, talking and flirting with those around her.
Tonight, she merely endured it. She wished for nothing more than to return home, change into her night rail, and climb under her counterpane.
The music slowed to a halt. One dance over, two left in the set.
Lord Kensington tucked her arm into his, his face flushed and eyes bright. “My dear Miss Mossant, it’s ever so hot in here. Shall we forgo the remainder of the set and take some air?” Without allowing her to answer, his hold upon her elbow tightened, and he led her toward the terrace.
When he went to set his hand at her back, she arched forward. She did not welcome his overly familiar touch.
Lord Kensington’s scent clawed at her. At one point, a lifetime ago, she’d considered him desirable, indeed. Now he stirred only disgust in her. She knew him for who he was, as did the rest of society.
But he was an earl, an influential one, and for that reason, as they had always done in the past, the ton embraced him.
Despite the scandalous duel that had grievously injured his… male parts.
“How is Daphne, er, Lady Kensington?” She’d remind him of the lady he’d ended up married to.
No need to flutter her eyelashes at him or encourage his preening boastfulness. Even though that was what gentlemen wanted. They wanted to feel their superiority. It was at least half of what made a man feel worthy.
“My countess is well,” he answered tersely.
“And your baby girl?”
He grimaced but did not answer, unusually intent, it seemed, on steering her away from the ballroom guests.
She had no need to be wary of the earl. She reminded herself that she had nothing to fear. Flavion Nottingham was no longer, in truth, a man. So, why was she suddenly feeling so uncomfortable?
Her mother had attended the ball and would be seated with the other matrons. Would Rhoda be overreacting if she demanded that he take her back inside?
But, no, Kensington was harmless.
He led away from the terrace and down a dark path. In the distance, she caught sight of a tall fountain surrounded by lanterns. Was it an angel or a devil? An odd work of art for such a pretty setting. Water shot up from the wings, and mist hovered around the stone creature.
She shivered to think an angel could appear satanic, as well the opposite.
People were like that, too.
With an invisible moon tonight, stars twinkled dimly in a mostly black sky, making for a very dark night. Furthermore, the glow of the candles inside the ballroom failed to illuminate much through the windows. Rhoda shivered as the earl’s arm slid around her waist.
His breath blew hot behind her ear. “Much better, don’t you think?”
Much better for what? The air? Was that what he referred to, the fresh air?
She doubted it. His too familiar touch caused a shiver of fear to creep along her spine. “I’m fine. Nonetheless, my lord, I wish to return inside now.” She must return to her mother. She slowed her pace and resisted him at last. She ought not to have come outside with him.
He chuckled but held fast to her, his grip becoming almost painful. “Ah, so, you wish to pretend reluctance, Miss Mossant? Does that make you feel more like a lady?” His words confused her, but his tone set her heart racing in fear.
Without warning, he spun her in his arms and shoved her off the path, behind one of the tall hedges.
And then his hard, cold lips landed on hers.
Stunned, Rhoda pushed against his chest and twisted her head. The taste of whiskey and cigars evoked a wave of nausea.
“Don’t play games with me.” He was stronger than he looked. One arm held her in place and the other hitched her skirt higher. “I have too much to gain.”
How had this happened? In the matter of a few seconds, she’d gone from casually strolling through the Countess of Crabtree’s garden to fighting off a vicious attack! She kicked out at him, but as her slippers encountered his boots, she realized the futility of such a strategy.
“Stop it, my lord!” she tried imploring him. Perhaps she had been too passive, allowing him to touch her as he had throughout the dance. Had he thought she wanted him to do this? “My lord, stop! Please! I don’t want—” His mouth smothered her pleas.
Real panic set in. The earl’s hand was now clutching at her bare leg. “Ah, yes, you like a little fight, eh?” He ground their teeth together. Rhoda didn’t know if the blood she tasted was his or her own.
Why would he do this? Surely, he couldn’t expect any gratification? In that moment, it didn’t matter that he lacked the necessary equipment. His hands roved over her arms, and he sought to touch her intimately. Rhoda squirmed and pushed at him, crying, angry and terrified at the same time.
Justin had resented Kensington when he’d led Miss Mossant onto the dance floor. He’d seen the look in Kensington’s eyes even before the dance began––a lasciviousness that belied any good intentions.
Perhaps Justin identified it so easily because of his own inclinations toward the lady in question.
Watching the dancers turn and step to the cheerfully paced music, Justin admitted that he’d been attracted to her the first time they’d met but then been disappointed upon hearing St. John’s boasts. Even so, he’d refused to allow his cousin’s words to dictate his opinion.
His gaze searched the dancers making turns about the parquet floor, and inexorably settled on the chestnut-haired beauty again. Miss Mossant did not appear overly flirtatious but she didn’t shun Kensington’s advances either. After the first dance of the set ended, the bounder led her off the floor and toward the doors leading outside. She gave him no argument.
Justin gazed into his glass. She considered him naïve. He’d heard it in her voice.
But if she knew his thoughts, she wouldn’t find him so benign. Even now his imagination defied his conscience.
If she’d go walking alone in the dark with him, she might not consider him so naïve.
When the second dance of the set commenced, a few matrons were tittering and pointing at him with interest. God, he hoped news of his recent inheritance hadn’t been made public yet. He’d prefer to bide a few more days in anonymity.
Damn. They looked to be heading his way… with purposeful intent.
Before he could be cornered, he placed his wine on a sideboard and then slipped through the French doors. The air outside the ballroom met him in a refreshing gust. Perhaps he could make his departure with the hostess being none the wiser.
The door opened behind him, and he didn’t look back to see if the matrons would be so bold as to follow.
He wouldn’t take the chance.
Jamming his hands into his pockets, he turned onto a poorly lit pathway. His peace was further disrupted by rustling sounds coming from behind a barrier of foliage. Likely he had nearly stumbled upon a tryst.
“Does that make you feel more like a lady?” a gruff-sounding voice came from the dark area off the path.
Justin crept closer. If this wasn’t a consensual encounter he’d feel compelled to intervene. Not that he was a confrontational man. As a vicar, he’d learned to stifle violent impulses that came over him. He preferred using words to settle most disputes.
He’d also learned, however, that without a willingness to use his fists, talking could be futile.
In an ideal world, neither would be necessary. Hopefully, his suspicions would be proven wrong and he could return inside to finish his glass of wine.
More rustling, and then all of his senses came alert. “Stop it, my lord! My lord, stop! Please! I don’t want—”
Miss Mossant’s voice. Apparently, she’d issued an invitation she wasn’t willing to entertain in full. But she sounded distraught, frantic. Justin lengthened his stride until he came even with the couple. He could barely make out two shadowy figures.
Dash it all, she appeared to be resisting the earl. Yes, the situation had turned ugly indeed.
Although he’d heard rumors of the earl’s infamous history, he’d never been introduced. According to most of the ton, Kensington had been something of a rake before his emasculating injury. Obviously, the extent of it had been exaggerated. Otherwise, the man would lack the motivation that seemed to have overcome him with Miss Mossant.
What would members of the ton think if they knew the extent of debauchery practiced by some of these titled so-called gentlemen?
The scene before him did not appear consensual.
Justin tensed. “The lady has asked you to stop, Kensington. I suggest you honor her request.”
Kensington stilled for a moment upon hearing Justin’s words. And then, “Walk away, Vicar. You know nothing of these matters.”
Hell and damnation. Justin took one step forward but before he could grab hold of the bounder’s collar, Miss Mossant lifted her knee and landed it with surprising accuracy. The earl stumbled back and then bent over forward, gasping.
Although Kensington deserved it and would receive no pity nor assistance from Justin, his own dangling parts retreated considerably at the thought of experiencing a similar blow.
It seemed he’d not have to bruise his knuckles after all.
Miss Mossant met his gaze, a combination of fear and anger burning in eyes that looked almost black. Her lower lip trembled, and she hugged her arms in front of herself protectively.
With a moan, Kensington dropped to the ground and curled himself into a ball.
What this situation required, Justin assessed, was finesse.
To prevent Miss Mossant from becoming the subject of yet more gossip, he needed to lead her away from watchful eyes, to someplace where she might repair herself. An alluring array of chestnut curls had escaped her coiffure, tumbling down her back. More troublesome, her dress appeared disheveled and had torn in one place. A trickle of blood dripped from her swollen lips.
His gut clenched at the sight.
Justin stepped around Kensington to where Miss Mossant stood frozen. She nearly collapsed before he took hold of her arm. As unobtrusively as possible, he tugged her bodice back into place and then dabbed his handkerchief at her lips. Although his hands were steady, his heart raced.
“Remind me never to anger you, Miss Mossant.”
She didn’t laugh, blink, or respond in any way to his attempt to break through her lifeless trance.
Others strolled nearby, at a distance of less than twenty yards.
Maneuvering her so that she would be indistinguishable in his shadow, he tucked her hand through his arm and led them along the veranda away from the ballroom entrance. They had no choice but to pass a few other guests.
“Is everything all right there?” a tall, elderly gentleman turned away from his companion to inquire.
“Positively delightful evening for a stroll.” Justin nodded toward the couple standing near one of the large potted plants. He blocked them from getting a good look at Miss Mossant. “My Lady, My Lord,”
Tall glass-paned doors beckoned at the far end of the terrace, and from what Justin could remember, they led into one of the Crabtrees’ drawing rooms. With any luck, the doors would be unlocked and the room empty.
He steered the passive young lady in that direction and released the breath he was holding when the door swung open. Miss Mossant stepped inside but then stood unmoving while Justin lit a few of the candles.
“An unusually dark night.” Best to burn only a few. He didn’t plan on remaining here long. Just enough time for Miss Mossant to gather her calm so that he could escort her to a ladies’ retiring room.
Her stillness stopped him. Caramel eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking. She wasn’t trembling or shaking, but she seemed frozen from the inside.
Justin could have gazed upon her silhouette all night long. If he were that sort of fellow, that was. He turned away from her and examined a painting placed at eye level. She needed a moment. He’d give her a level of privacy to compose herself.
The urge to comfort her, to hold her tightly against him, was strong. But with a woman such as she, his initial desire would hastily be replaced by another, less platonic one.
He was a man, after all.
But that would make him no better than Kensington.
Finally, the rustling of her skirts signaled that she’d cast off whatever spell shed been under and had crossed farther into the room. Perhaps she was ready to face him now.
When he turned and caught sight of her expression, he tried to interpret her thoughts. Her brows lowered in concentration, and she seemed baffled. Confused. “I–I–thank you for your most timely arrival, Mr. White. I cannot imagine… If you hadn’t come along…” Her hands fluttered.
A shiver ran through her, and he glanced around for a quilt. “Are you cold?”
She shook her head.
And then her soulful eyes widened to stare at him. “I must find my mother! She’ll be worried if she doesn’t see me at supper.” The mysterious beauty went to take a step but caught herself on the back of a chair when her knees nearly buckled. “I…”
When he moved to assist her again, she stayed him with one hand, grimaced, and then seemed to shake off her confusion. Moving slower this time, she lifted her skirt as though she’d carefully pick her way to the exit.
Justin seized her by the arm.
“First, the retiring room, I think.” If she were to reenter the ballroom in her present condition, her ruination would be complete. He held her gaze steadily, making certain she understood his meaning.
Comprehension dawned, and she nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, of course.” At least the corridor wasn’t well lit. “Thank you, Mr. White.” Shaking him off, she turned again to leave.
“Miss Mossant?” He stopped her with his voice this time. “You would do well to avoid such circumstances in the future. Not all men are so easily thwarted.” She really was too beautiful, too sensual, for her own good.
Her jaw tightened but she did not meet his gaze again. She nodded. “I am ever so grateful for your kind advice.”
And then she was gone.
Don’t miss the first books in the series:
To keep the money, he has to keep her as well…
Cecily Nottingham has made a huge mistake.
The marriage bed was still warm when the earl she thought she loved crawled out of it and announced that he loved someone else.
Loves. Someone else.
All he saw in Cecily was her dowry.
But he’s in for the shock of his life, because in order to keep the money, he has to keep her.
Sophia Babineaux has landed a husband! And a good one at that! Lord Harold, the second son of a duke, is kind, gentle, undemanding.
Perhaps a little too undemanding?
Because after one chance encounter with skilled rake, Captain Devlin Brooks, it is glaringly obvious that something is missing between Lord Harold and herself… pas-sion… sizzle… well… everything. And marriage is forever!
Will her parents allow her to reconsider?
There comes a time in a lady’s life when she needs to take matters into her own hands…
A Scheming Minx
Emily Goodnight, a curiously smart bluestocking – who cannot see a thing without her blasted spectacles – is raising the art of meddling to new heights. Why leave her future in the hands of fate when she’s perfectly capable of managing it herself?
Disclaimer: This giveaway is intended for 18+ due to mature content. No purchase necessary to win.