Julia Herington is overjoyed when her stepsister, Louisa, becomes engaged--to a viscount, no less. Louisa's only hesitation is living a life under the ton's critical gaze. But with his wry wit and unconventional ideas, Julia feels James is perfect for Louisa. She can only hope to find a man like him for herself. Exactly like him, in fact...
As the new Viscount Matheson, James wished to marry quickly and secure his title. Kind, intelligent Louisa seemed a suitable bride...until he met her stepsister. Julia is impetuous--and irresistible. Pledged to one sister, yet captivated by another, what is he to do? As Christmas and the whirl of the London season approach, James may be caught in a most scandalous conundrum, one that only true love, a bit of spiritous punch--and a twist of fate--will solve...
"Hilarious and utterly adorable. Theresa Romain's brilliant debut manages to be both passionate and just plain fun." -USA Today bestselling author Courtney Milan
"Give in to temptation--treat yourself to Theresa Romain's delightfully witty debut." --USA Today bestselling author Sally MacKenzie
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October 04, 2011
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Excerpt from Season for Temptation by Theresa Romain
In Which an Unbelievable Number of Biscuits Are Consumed
Stonemeadows Hall, Kent
The clock on the drawing room mantel ticked away the seconds loudly, and James drummed his fingers on his knee in time with it. Perhaps it was excitement that caused his every nerve to feel on edge. A man should feel excited to meet his fianc�e's family, shouldn't he? Certainly not nervous, though. Not when that man was a viscount, accustomed to the sharp eyes and sharper tongues of the ton.
But ever since Lord Oliver had written to approve James's suit of the Honorable Louisa, James had felt nervous, as if something might go awry and upset his swiftly laid plans. Now that he was in the Olivers' drawing room, his feeling of anxiety grew even stronger.
He sighed and walked to the window, but his eyes could hardly take in the well-tended grounds outside. Once again, he ran through his mental checklist of Reasons This Engagement Made Sense.
First, Louisa was intelligent and poised. Second, she came from an old and established family. Third, he liked and respected her. And fourth and perhaps most important of all, she'd agreed to marry him after a courtship that even he would have to describe as perfunctory.
Behind him, the drawing room door slammed open with a bang.
James whirled at the interruption, expecting to see the elderly butler who had shown him in a few minutes before.
Instead, a young woman burst into the room at a half run.
She was muttering loudly, her expression harried and the bodice of her frock askew.
"Curse and drat that girl, drat her. I knew she hadn't left her music in here, but where could it be? We'll never find it before the vi--"
As her eyes roved the room, she froze in mid-word upon seeing James. Her mouth dropped open. "Urr."
The clock on the drawing room mantel ticked off four endless seconds as James stared at her, still too surprised to speak, and she stared back with wide blue eyes.
The young woman spoke first. "Well, I'm embarrassed. I don't know what to say." She glanced at the doorway with an expression of longing. "Could I go back out and pretend this never happened?"
James stifled a laugh. "Please stay," he replied, bowing to his companion. "I'm delighted to meet you."
He was pleasantly surprised to find he meant those trite words. Since the door had banged open, his tension had begun to ebb, as if he'd simply needed a jolt to bring back his sense of self-possession.
"I'm sorry, you are . . . ?" The young lady seemed still to be struggling to comprehend James's presence in the drawing room.
"Lord Matheson. That is, I'm James, Louisa Oliver's fianc�."
She gasped and grew pink with embarrassment, so James prompted her in his gentlest voice. "May I assist you with anything?"
She met his eyes again, and he was pleased that the flush began to fade from her cheeks. She was rather pretty, small and fair, with a heart-shaped face and a wide mouth that was currently pursed in thought.
"I don't think so, but thank you. Unless you're willing to forget that this happened at all, which it seems you are, since you're being very polite to me. I hardly know why, unless that's just something that viscounts do. I promise, I did mean to have everything perfect for your arrival, but instead I've blistered your ears in the first minute we met."
"It's quite all right," James assured his companion again. He gestured her toward a pin-striped sofa. "Please, be seated if you wish. I've heard much worse language before."
"Really?" The young woman looked intrigued. "From ladies? What did they say?"
James coughed to hide another laugh.
Who on earth was this impulsive creature? She seemed to say whatever was on her mind, which he'd rarely encountered among females but found now that he enjoyed immensely. He'd never met anyone so unguarded in her behavior. His interest was piqued, and he tingled with an excitement quite different from his earlier anxiety.
Unable to keep a smile from his face, he replied, "It would hardly be polite of me to repeat such words to you, especially since you've just complimented me on my manners."
"Nonsense," she replied at once. "I'll give you another compliment if you tell me. I'm sure I can think of something."
There was more than a small part of James that wanted to take her at her word, to say forbidden things to a young woman. He had a feeling this one wouldn't be scandalized; she'd laugh and ask for more.
And he was curious, too, about what she might offer him as a compliment.
Perhaps a little too curious?
"I'm sorry to have to disappoint a lady," he said. "But I really shouldn't."
His companion sucked on her lower lip, deliberating.
"I suppose you're right. Anyway, I like your coat."
James stared down at the sleeves of the garment in question. It was well-tailored, but apart from that it looked ordinary to him. "Thank you?"
"That was your compliment. Or rather, my compliment for you," she explained. "You see, I followed through on my part of the bargain. Perhaps sometime soon you'll follow through with yours, since you'll be visiting our family for a while."
This was too ridiculous. James shook his head, protesting, "Absolutely not. There was no bargain. You're not going to manipulate me into teaching you how to talk like a guttersnipe just by telling me you like my coat."
"But I really do like it," insisted the young lady. "You look quite noble, if that's the right word for a viscount. I'm well aware that my own appearance is out of sorts, which is another thing I meant to remedy before your arrival."
She brushed an errant lock of blond hair from her forehead, looking rueful. "I intended to have my hair pinned up properly, but perhaps you know how it is when you are with young children. I'm always having to crawl after something or other, and it is just so much easier not to attempt misguided elegance when one is alone with family. Which I suppose you soon will be, but still, first impressions can be so lasting, and I didn't want to come across as a complete hoyden despite the possible truth of the matter."
The cheerful lilt returned to her voice by the end of this speech, and James was again transfixed by the play of her eager expression as she talked, the curve of her mouth, her animated hands.
Her hands. As if time slowed to a crawl, James watched as one of her hands reached for his.
He stared at her hand on his, feeling burned by her cool fingers. It was a whisper of a touch, but his skin prickled under it anyway.
But she was talking to him. What was she saying? He mentally shook himself to pay attention, trying to ignore the fingers holding his.
"Louisa seems to like you very much," the young woman added, still holding James's hand in her impulsive grasp. "Since I know she likes me too, I daresay you can tolerate me as well as she does, and we'll both get to like each other."
Her innocent words acted on James like a slap across the face.
His mind reeled. How quickly he had forgotten all his nervousness, and even his very surroundings, while talking to this girl. He drew his hand back slowly.
"We'll get to like each other," he repeated, avoiding his companion's avid gaze.
He feared that was too true.
He had to remember he was here to arrange a swift marriage with Louisa, not to banter with . . . who was this young woman, anyway? She was obviously a member of the family, but she looked nothing like his tall, elegant fianc�e.
"I'm sure we will," he replied at last. His voice came out stiff and formal. The stuffy tone disgusted him, but he needed to place some distance between them.
"Forgive my ignorance," James began again in his best I-am-a-viscount manner, "but . . . who are you?" It was something a viscount probably ought never to have said, but really, sometimes it was so much easier just to cut to the essence of a subject.
"Who am I?" she repeated. "Why, have we really been sitting here these minutes and I never said? Oh, my lord, you must think I'm the rudest person you ever met."
"Not even close," he replied. "Remember all the words I know. I've been in some very rude company."
Guilt twinged through him as the playful words fell from his lips. He really shouldn't talk with her like this.
"Rude company . . ." She gave a sigh of pure envy.
"You're so lucky. Anyway, I'm Julia, Louisa's sister."
"Then you are lucky, too," he replied automatically. He was still confused, though. How had his dark-haired fianc�e wound up with this tiny blond slip of a sister? Julia seemed to read his confusion on his face, because she added, "I'm not really a blood relative, but I feel as close to Louisa as if we were. I mean, what I imagine I would feel like with a full-blood sister, though neither of us has one. Just half-blood. Though I feel as if they are full relations, too. Anyway, Louisa and I are stepsisters. Do you have any sisters?"
James restrained a smile as her cheerful words bubbled over him. "Yes, one elder sister," he answered when Julia finally wound down. "Gloria, the dowager Viscountess Roseborough."
Ah, Gloria. The smile dropped from his face, and he chose his next words carefully. Gloria's troubles had already been laid out before the entire ton, but they might not yet have made it to the Oliver household in the country.
"My sister is rather a . . . well, a serious-minded person, and very conscious of propriety. But then, her life has not been easy of late."
He berated himself for saying too much and averted the subject. "Still, I can vouch from my own family experience that being related to someone need not make you close, and I'm sure the reverse is true, too."
Julia beamed at this affirmation, and a jolt of delight shot through James. She'd accepted him; she'd perceived his reply as honest. Perhaps he could have told her more, after all.
Just as Julia opened her mouth to respond, a footman entered the room with a large tea tray. Immediately on his heels marched three girls and a boy of decreasing size.
Julia's attention was distracted by these new arrivals.
"Ah, I thought someone would soon join us in here! We've all been wild with curiosity to meet you, you know.
Hello, children. I suppose you want some biscuits?" She motioned to the footman to set down the heavily laden tray on a table next to the sofa, which he did with an audible groan of relief.
Julia turned to James and introduced the lineup of eager young children with great formality and flourish. "Lord Matheson, may I present Miss Elise, Miss Emilia, Miss Anne, and Master Tom." As Julia indicated each child, a well-grown and pretty girl of perhaps nine or ten years curtsied properly, a smaller and more saucy-looking version tipped him an equally fine gesture, a chubby five year- old shyly flounced her dress and ducked her head, and a small boy bent into a giant bow, teetering as he hauled himself upright again.
James had long experience with small children, and dutifully matched the solemnity of young Tom's bow. "Misses Elise, Emilia, and Anne, and Master Tom, I am delighted to make your acquaintance. Would you care for some . . ." He trailed off, and peered at the tea tray. "What type of biscuits do we have?"
"Ginger and shortbread," Julia replied, parceling the treats out onto plates. "And they've given us watercress sandwiches, too. I can't imagine why. No one ever wants to eat them."
"Actually, I rather like them myself," James admitted. He pitched his voice casually, mindful of the eight small ears and eyes now regarding him, but disappointment nagged at him. He wanted to continue talking to Julia, to know what she would have said next had they been left alone. He had never felt such an immediate pull toward another person. Did she feel it, too? He wanted to grasp her hands again, to feel the gentle shock of her touch. Given a few more minutes, he might have unburdened himself completely.
Don't be a fool, James. His burden was his own, his and his family's, and not to be dumped onto young women he had only just met. He sighed again, but thankfully none of the family members noticed in the bustle over biscuits and cups.
With a great effort, he wrenched his mind away from the present, back to a silent library six weeks before, and a dark-haired young woman named Louisa Oliver who had hidden there to escape a crowded ballroom. The ballroom in which he'd been bidden to find a wife.
But Julia's voice interrupted his thoughts almost at once. "Children, why don't you sit on the sofa over there to eat your biscuits? You may fidget to your heart's content, and Lord Matheson and I will pretend not to notice a thing."
Amid a chorus of giggles, a bustle of cups, plates, and crumbs, the children scooted off across the room as Julia had indicated.
She laughed softly as she poured out two more cups of fragrant dark tea.
"Heavens, we are coming at you all wrong. I am so sorry, my lord. The only explanation I can think of is that we are out of practice in receiving Louisa's fianc�s." She smiled at James. "Milk or lemon?"
James blinked. Surely she hadn't just said what he thought she'd said. "Er . . . have there been many?"
"Many what? Lemons? I suppose so. We all like them prodigiously."
"No, fianc�s." He held his breath waiting for her answer.
Julia looked puzzled for a moment, regarding the tea tray as if looking for the fianc�s in question. Then understanding broke over her face.
"No; you're the one and only, which I would have thought you'd have known. But it is so much easier to throw Louisa to the wolves than to blame the whole household for our topsy-turvy welcome."
She laughed, and James let a relieved breath whoosh out of his lungs. He settled against the sofa back again, considering her thought process.
No, it still didn't make any sense to him, but the distraction was delightful. After a moment, he gave up and just chuckled. "Miss Julia, your logic is impressive. Lemon, please, and one sugar."
Julia handed him a delicate cup, then prepared her own tea and piled up a plate of biscuits for herself.
Settling back on the sofa, she chose a piece of shortbread and let it crumble in her mouth. Their cook made the most wonderful shortbread, light and sweet. The only thing better in the world was her ginger biscuits. She chose one of those next.
Julia hadn't realized she was so hungry, but before she knew it, she was staring at an empty plate.
"Did I really eat all my biscuits?" The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them.
She looked up to see the viscount's green eyes crinkling at the corners with amusement.
"If you didn't, someone stole them from you very quietly indeed," he replied with a straight face, but his eyes brimmed with laughter.
Her treacherous face turned hot again with embarrassment. "I suppose that's possible," she replied, struggling for dignity.
She forced herself to set down her plate. She would have loved to refill it, but there was no way she was going to let this dashing young man watch her make even more of a fool of herself than she already had. More than once.
"Er . . . a watercress sandwich for you, my lord?" He looked surprised, but accepted one of the foul treats. He actually began to eat it.
"Do you want some more biscuits, Miss Julia?" he asked between bites. "Not that it's my place to offer you food in your own home, but I'd feel better if I weren't the only one eating."
"The children are still eating, too," Julia replied, but she was too hungry to put up any more than a token resistance. She eyed the tray, considering how much food she ought to leave for her parents and Louisa.
They never ate much in the early afternoon. Perhaps two biscuits each would do? She took the rest.
"Admirable," the viscount spoke up, watching her pile biscuits onto her plate.
Julia could feel her face turning pink again. She never could hide her embarrassment, which itself was always embarrassing to her. "I'm certain everyone else will love to have the watercress sandwiches," she explained, knowing her words sounded lame. "No need to let these biscuits go to waste."
"Of course not," he replied, hoisting his teacup in front of his face and making a choking sound. "It's very resourceful of you."
Now Julia was suspicious. "I could have sworn your cup was empty."
He set it down, a poorly feigned expression of surprise on his face. "So it is. Well, my mistake." His face was serene, but his eyes were laughing again.
"I hope you choke on your horrid sandwich," Julia muttered under her breath, too quiet for him to hear. Of course she didn't mean it, though. Every time the viscount smiled at her, she felt triumphant. Glowing, like she'd accomplished something wonderful.