From Wendy Vella comes a Cinderella story of whirlwind passion between a dashing earl and a beautiful countess—and the secret that threatens to tear them apart.
Regal, poised, and elegant, Sophie, Countess of Monmouth, is everything that a highborn lady should be. But Sophie is hiding a past that is far from royal. When Patrick, Earl of Coulter, realizes that her story doesn’t add up, he resolves to find out the truth of what Sophie and her sister-in-law are concealing. Although Sophie has every reason to avoid him, the handsome and charismatic Patrick awakens something wicked deep within her soul . . . a powerful need that Sophie must stifle in order to protect her place in society.
Despite Sophie’s humble background, the raven-haired beauty has won Patrick’s heart. But what Sophie needs now is an ally. Viscount Myles Dumbly, the disgruntled former heir of Monmouth, is determined to expose Sophie as a fraud to recapture his lost inheritance. Soon Patrick is drawn into a fight for both their lives. Somehow he must find a way not only to rescue Sophie from poverty once and for all, but to keep her in his arms forever.
“I fear you will break your pretty neck if you jump, Countess. Or was that the plan?”
The deep drawled words made Sophie shriek, then grasp the downpipe as she swayed toward the edge. With her heart pounding wildly, she squinted down into the Earl of Coulters’s handsome face. She could not see all his features, but there was little doubting that he was amused by her predicament.
“If you were not planning to end it all on that ledge, Sophie, then perhaps you were taking air?”
Sophie felt her temper rise and for once could not find her habitual hauteur. Well really, could one display hauteur to any great effect when seated on a ledge, several feet above the ground? Still . . . how dare he make fun of her?
“If I wish to sit on this ledge all evening, my lord, then that is my choice. And I . . . I did not give you leave to call me by my first name, sir.”
The deep rumble of laughter from below had Sophie gritting her teeth.
“Ah, but remember, Sophie, I have seen your lovely satin knickers. Surely that gives me some rights,” the earl said.
Sophie pressed her lips together. She would not speak to him.
“I am afraid I cannot let you perch on the ledge a minute longer, my little bird. You see, you are in imminent danger of falling.”
As if to strengthen his argument, Patrick watched one of the countess’s dainty feet move closer to the edge. What the hell was she doing up there? It was only by chance that he had chosen this small balcony to find some peace from the matrons, who were firing their daughters into his path with all the finesse of a drill sergeant. It also gave him the opportunity to think about the irritating shrew now perched above him. Had he not looked up then and there, he would have missed her completely. It was almost beyond belief that the haughty Countess of Monmouth was sitting on that ledge like a naughty child.
“I can manage quite well on my own, my lord, so please leave and allow me to . . . ah . . .”
“Dismount?” Patrick suggested helpfully.
Sophie ignored him and once again turned to jump. How was she to talk her way out of this one? Surely he would tell everyone of her escapade and then Letty would be both mortified and furious with her, and her reputation as the ice maiden would be ruined.
“Take my hand,” Patrick offered.
“Get down at once, my lord!” Sophie was horrified as the earl climbed nimbly onto the edge of the balustrade, where he balanced himself and then held both his hands out toward her.
“Take my hand, Sophie,” Patrick said again, this time with a little more force, which the little baggage noticed because her eyes widened fractionally.
Heaving a very loud sigh, which the woman above him could hear quite clearly, Patrick folded his arms and waited. He knew that it was a long drop to the ground, but he felt no fear. He had grown up scaling balconies and anything else he could climb. Patrick had felt free, away from the control his parents had upon his life. Only when he was soaring above the earth did he believe that one day he would escape the life he was forced to live. The countess, however, did not know that.
She looked so small, sitting on that ledge. Several ringlets had escaped their pins and trailed over her shoulders. Her eyes were huge in her pale face and she looked like a cornered doe. Patrick had the feeling it was not just his presence that was to blame for her condition. He wondered again which was the real countess—the one who did handstands and stuttered or the cool ice maiden? He had a feeling it was the former, and that made his insides twist, which in turn made him angry, for no woman had ever made his insides twist. From his vantage point he could see the gentle swell of her breasts as she bent over and the primitive male in him was not immune to such a display. Lust bolted through his body like forks of lightning, leaving him hungry for her.
“What the hell are you doing on that ledge?” he asked, because suddenly he needed to know.
“I . . . I cannot tell you, my lord,” Sophie whispered. “Pray do not ask me again, and please hold on to something,” she added. Seeing him standing on that small ledge—seemingly at ease with a drop of some sixty feet below him—was making her feel very unwell.
Patrick could see her gloved hands shaking as they struggled to clutch the downpipe.
“Cannot or will not?” he questioned softly.
“Cannot.” Sophie shivered. It was cold and she was clad in a very thin gown.
“Come, enough of this nonsense. You are shivering and in imminent danger of falling, now place your hands in mine, I will bring you down safely.” His tone was deeper, words clipped, but he was still surprised when Sophie lowered both her arms toward him. Before she had a chance to withdraw them, he had swung her off the ledge to safety and onto the balcony below. Nimbly, he followed.
For Sophie, reaching the safety of solid ground presented a double-edged sword. She was relieved to be safe, yet uncertain what the earl would do now. Straightening her skirts, she made a fuss of brushing off any dirt and repinning her hair. Finally, she could find nothing else to repair and was forced to lift her eyes. She met the intensity of his gaze and took several steps back until her bottom collided with the railing.
Manners dictated she thank him. She would do that and leave . . . quickly. “Thank you, my lord, f-for you . . . your assistance.”
Patrick had waited patiently while she arranged her skirts and tidied her hair. He had even enjoyed the small graceful movements. Now, however, he wanted answers. Taking the two steps necessary to bring her closer, he caught and held her glance.
“Why were you on that ledge, Sophie?”
Oh lord, he was close; she could smell his scent, the spicy essence that was his alone. She could also vividly remember the touch of his lips and how his hands had felt on her bottom, and . . . Oh this was not good, not good at all. She had nowhere to run, she was trapped. Although he was not touching her, she could not move or breathe. Where was the armor she could usually pull around herself when someone or something threatened her?
“Please, my lord, I wish to g-go back into the ballroom; Lady Carstairs will have missed me.”
“When you have answered my questions, madam, I will let you return.”
“You have no right t-to hold me here.”
“Answer the question, Sophie,” Patrick said gruffly, because he was running out of patience, and being this close to her was making his body ache. Her subtle scent was teasing him, the hint of roses casting a spell over his senses.
“I . . . I gave you no leave to speak so freely, my lord.”
He did not speak, just stood there all dark and dangerous, looking at her with those deep, fathomless eyes.
“I . . . the ladies . . . ,” Sophie blurted out, and then clamped her lip firmly between her teeth to stop any further outpouring of words.
“The ladies what?” Patrick prompted, placing both hands on the balcony railing, effectively caging her inside his arms.
“Please,” Sophie begged, her words almost a sob, “let me go.”
“The ladies what?”
Sophie knew she would have to speak or risk staying here all evening. She could see the determination in his eyes; he would hold her here until dawn if necessary. Why could she not just chill him into silence like she had done with others? Why was he the man who could reduce her to a senseless idiot?
“They were saying things I did not want to hear.” Sophie kept her eyes focused on his lips. She would tell him what he wanted and then she would leave.
“And you care what they say?” God, she was sweet. She was nibbling her bottom lip and the gesture nearly dropped him to his knees.
This vulnerable countess was at such odds with the façade she usually presented him that he felt his defenses slip further. Damn, she was a confusing bundle of womanhood.
“Why?” he questioned looking at her mouth. She had tortured her bottom lip until it was full and rosy.
“They do not like me.”
“Did they threaten you?” Patrick questioned, relieved as he watched her shake her head. “Then why did you end up on that ledge?”
Sophie felt his breath brush her lips.
“I . . . I did not want to face them and listen to their vicious words. They often insult L-Letty as well and I will not tolerate that.”
“Why do you care what they say?” Patrick leaned further forward to breathe in her soft scent, the essence of Sophie.
“I . . . I.” Sophie swallowed as his lips brushed her hair. “I usually do not care, but tonight I did not have the strength to face them.”
“No doubt you used all your strength avoiding me and throwing yourself into the arms of the nearest male.”
“I did not!” Sophie gasped, then blushed as he lifted one eyebrow, because that was indeed what she had done.
He had to taste her again, just one touch, a brief kiss. Lowering his head, he placed his mouth softly on top of hers and knew instantly that one touch would never be enough with this woman. Nectar was his first and last thought before he deepened the kiss.
At the touch of his lips, Sophie felt her knees tremble. He might appear ruthless, but once again his touch was soft; he was coaxing a response instead of demanding one. His tongue traced her lips, its heat searing through her.
“Open for me, Sophie,” Patrick whispered, his breath stroking her face.
Sophie could do little else but obey, remembering the delicious feel of his tongue in her mouth.
Patrick slipped his arms around her waist and she came willingly as he pulled her closer.
“You want this, Sophie,” Patrick growled as he placed heated kisses on her smooth skin.
“Please.” Sophie shivered as his kisses reached the rise of her breasts above the neckline of her gown.
To be entered just leave a comment/question for Wendy, Patrick or Sophie or tell us about one of your most embarrassing moments? (since Patrick just shared Sophie's...;-)