Josephine Atworthy is shocked by the goings-on at her rich neighbor's house party. Quite shocked. But her demure charm beguiles a mysterious nobleman, who begs a kiss--then another. And in a twinkling they fall head over heels in love...
Winner New Jersey Romance Writers 2011 Golden Leaf Award for Best Novella
Finalist 2011 National Readers’ Choice Awards, Novella
Finalist 2012 Booksellers Best Award, Novella
“Papa, what the hell is this?”
Miss Jo Atworthy threw the package she was carrying at her father’s desk; he dove to catch it before it could hit the battered mahogany surface.
“Careful! That’s a very rare collection of Catullus’s poems to Lesbia, Jo.”
“Oh, good Lord.” Jo clenched her teeth and counted to ten. Another expensive book, and of dirty poetry, no less. How many times did she have to tell Papa they couldn’t afford such extravagances?
She watched him reverently unwrap the book and stroke its leather cover. A thousand times would make no difference. He never heard things he didn’t want to hear.
She blew out a short, sharp breath. There was nothing to be done. She’d have to tell Mr. Windley she’d take his youngest little hellion on as a Latin student. She untied her bonnet and jerked it off her head. But she would not take Mr. Windley on as well, no matter how clearly he hinted he’d be delighted to hire her permanently--via a wedding ring--to teach his spawn and tend his hearth and maybe even produce a new idiot Windley or two.
Yet the damnable truth was her marriage would solve all their financial difficulties.
She flung her bonnet on the overstuffed chair. Knocking some sense of economy into Papa’s thick skull would work as well. He was studying the pages of his newest purchase now, smiling with unadulterated joy and a touch of awe.
“Papa, you must stop buying these books. We simply don’t have the funds to pay for them.”
He didn’t even bother to glance up. “Now, Jo, I’m sure we can--”
“We cannot.” She shoved her hands in her pockets to keep from strangling him, and her fingers slid over the letter she’d got when she’d picked up the post. A small thrill shot through her. She’d been waiting for this letter, looking for it each day for the last week. When she’d finally seen it, her address written in the familiar black scrawl, she’d wanted to snatch it up and take it to her room, to curl up in her favorite chair and read it in privacy--but Papa’s blasted package had caused all thought of her letter to fly out of her head.
She ran her finger over the paper. Had her London prince found her comments on Virgil amusing? She’d been on tenterhooks, waiting for his reaction. Had he--
She snatched her hands back out of her pockets. She was as hare-brained as Papa. Worse. Papa’s books were real; she’d built her “prince” from air. She’d sent her first letter off to him via his publisher, signing only her initials to hide the fact she was a female. She knew he’d never answer, but when he had...
She repressed the shiver of excitement she still felt at the thought. Missive by missive, sentence by sentence, word by precious word over the last year, she’d created a figure of male perfection--handsome, honorable, strong, brilliant, kind, courageous.
She was a fool. She knew nothing about him, not even his name, for heaven’s sake. No matter how witty or intelligent his letters, a man who wrote articles as "A Gentleman" in the The Classical Gazette and signed his letters “K” was probably some ancient don.
She should be inquiring after his gout, not imagining him riding up on a white horse to save her from her boring life. She frowned at her father. "Perhaps you’d like to tutor the Windley--”
She heard a sudden banging.
“I say, isn’t that someone at the door?” Papa clutched his precious Catullus to his chest and looked over her shoulder, relief evident in his face.
She was not going to let him escape. Every time she tried to get him to face their dire financial situation, he found a way to dodge the conversation. Not this time. “Papa, I--”
The banging got louder.
“There? Don’t you hear it? Someone is knocking at the door.”
“I don’t--” Damn, their caller was not going to give up; the fellow risked pounding a hole in the wood. She treated her father to her best glare. “We’ll resume this conversation as soon as I find out who that is.”
Papa looked so damnably innocent. “I’ll come with you.”
“Don’t think to slip past me and escape. We are going to have this talk.”
“Jo, you wound me.” Papa tried to look wounded but failed. “Go see who is knocking.”
“I am.” She stalked to the door and threw it open. A haughty-looking footman dressed in Baron Greyham’s black and gray livery stood on the threshold, his hand raised to knock again.
He looked her up and down and then sniffed, clearly not approving of what he saw.
She clenched her fists to keep from smoothing her hair or skirt. “Yes?”
“I have an invitation for Miss Josephine Atworthy from his lordship, Baron Greyham.” If the man tilted his nose any farther into the air, he’d fall over backward.
“I am Miss Atworthy.”
The footman actually cringed.
She tilted her nose in the air. She might not look like the baron’s cousin--well, she probably did look like his poor relation. Her dress was showing its age a bit, but, damn it, it was still serviceable. She had no time--or money--to follow the silly vagrancies of fashion.
He addressed a spot above her head. “Lord Greyham sends his regards, Miss Atworthy, and requests the pleasure of your company at a gathering he is hosting in honor of St. Valentine’s Day.” He offered her a sheet of vellum.
She stared at it as if it were a snake. The Bad Baron was inviting her to one of his scandalous gatherings? “There must be some mistake.”
The footman looked as if he thought so, too, but restrained himself with some effort from saying so. “If you are indeed Miss Atworthy, there is no mistake.”
He offered her the paper again. She considered rejecting it again, but that seemed rather silly--and she’d admit she was curious. She took it.
“Of course she’s Miss Atworthy,” Papa said. “Who else would she be--Helen of Troy?”
The footman was not a classics scholar. “Lord Greyham didn’t mention a Miss Troy.”
Jo perused the invitation. “Lady Greyham writes that one of their female guests came down with a putrid throat at the last minute; they need me to make up their numbers.”
“I see.” Papa, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin, shrugged. “Then you’d best go pack your things.”
Jo crumpled the note. “I’m not going. What are you thinking?”
Papa patted her arm. "Don’t worry. I’ll be fine on my own.”
She was going to grind her teeth to dust. “I’ve no doubt you’ll be as merry as a grig, but you know I can't attend one of Lord Greyham’s parties. My reputation would never survive it."
Papa laughed. "Balderdash. Everyone knows you’re far too full of starch to participate in anything even remotely improper."
She was not flattered. Was she really considered so priggish? Would even her prince think her so?
Damn it, she must cure herself of this silly girlish fantasy. She tried to picture “K” as hunchbacked, balding, and decrepit.
"And you're a bit long in the tooth to be concerned with gossip."
Oh! Insult added to injury. "I am still unmarried; I must concern myself with gossip."
Papa smiled at the footman. “Will you excuse us for a moment?”
“Of course, sir. I’ll--”
Papa shut the door in the footman’s face.
He took her arm and led her a few steps from the door. “Jo, think. This is quite the opportunity. It's not every day you get such an invitation.”
She jerked her arm free. “An invitation to sin!”
Papa looked heavenward as if requesting divine intervention and then back at her. “A little sin would do you good.”
“Dear God, Jo, I was only funning.” He frowned. “Well, mostly funning. The truth is you are twenty-eight years old. You’re not getting any younger.”
“I’m well aware of my age.”
“Oh, don’t poker up.” He sighed. “I hate to say it, my dear, but you do have a reputation for being...” He waved his hand, as if that told her anything.
“For being what?”
“A bit of a prude.” He took her hand in his. “Men--except perhaps that idiot Windley--see you more as a Latin tutor, ready to smack them at the least mistake, than a woman."
She jerked her hand back. "That's ridiculous." It might be true that the few moderately eligible gentlemen in the neighborhood had stopped asking her to stand up with them and edged out of any conversational group she joined, but that just saved her from having to stifle her yawns as they droned on about their horses and dogs.
"Frankly you’re turning into a shrew.”
“I’m trying to save us from the poorhouse. If you'd only exercise a little self-restraint--”
“Jo, men don’t like to be berated constantly. If you don’t take care, even Windley won’t have you.”
If only she hadn’t sold the hideous bust of Virgil that had graced the table by the door, she could bash him over the head with it. “I’d rather sell myself on the streets than marry that hideous oaf.”
“Well, if you’re considering that line of work, I don’t see how you can take issue with attending Greyham’s house party. At least he won’t have any Paphians there.” Papa paused. "That is, I don't think he will."
Clearly, Papa’s obsession with erotic classical poetry had addled his brain. “I cannot go to this party. Mrs. Johnson says all the Greyham gatherings include orgies.”
“Really?” An odd expression lit Papa's eyes.
“Papa! Aren’t you scandalized?”
“Er, yes, of course.” So why did he sound so wistful? “But I think it’s highly unlikely Greyham will host anything as exciting as an orgy. And you can’t go by what Minerva Johnson says. She’d think a handshake that lasted more than a second was the beginning of a seduction.” He snorted. “Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to learn there never was a Mr. Johnson. I can't imagine that woman ever spread her--”
His eyes met Jo’s and he stopped abruptly. He cleared his throat. “Suffice it to say, I don’t believe you can put any reliance in Mrs. Johnson’s speculations concerning Baron Greyham’s gatherings. But if anything of that nature does occur, you can just retreat to your room. I'm sure none of the men in attendance would try to take any liberties with you."
Papa’s reassurances made her feel very out of sorts. "Be that as it may, I still can’t go. I have lessons to teach to pay for that book you just purchased.”
She glared at Catullus; Papa crossed his arms, sliding the tome under his coat.
“I’ll teach the lessons.”
The footman banged on the door again.
Papa scratched his nose and gave her a speculative, sideways look. “You know, the old baron borrowed a very rare copy of Ovid from me and never returned it. If you found it, we might be able to sell it for a significant sum.”
“Ha! As if you would ever sell a rare book.” Why wouldn't Papa meet her eyes? He was hiding something.
Still, if there was indeed a rare Ovid in the baron’s library... Papa might not sell it, but she could. Any extra income would improve their financial picture. “How will I recognize it?”
A small, triumphant smile flickered over Papa’s lips. Damn. He did have some plot in his twisted mind, but she couldn't begin to discern it.
“It has a bright red binding with large gold lettering. I’m sure it will almost jump off the shelf at you.”
All her instincts told her Papa was setting a trap for her, but what was his goal? Likely all he wanted was to get some days to himself to enjoy his blasted Catullus. “I don’t know. I--”
The footman hammered on the door once more.
“Come, Jo. The baron’s servant is growing anxious to hear your decision. I'll tell him you’re just packing a few things and will be with him in a moment, shall I?”
“Well...” She couldn’t believe she was actually considering attending. “You really will teach the lessons?”
“All five Windleys and perhaps the sixth? I told Mr. Windley I wouldn’t take the youngest one on, but with your newest purchase”--she glared at Catullus again; Papa moved it behind his back--“I think I’d better agree to give him lessons, too.”
“Leave it to me. I've dealt with beef-witted boys before.”
Being free of the Windleys for a few days was itself reason enough to accept this dratted invitation. “We can’t afford to annoy Mr. Windley, Papa. If he decides to take his boys elsewhere for their lessons, we will be in the briars.”
Papa shrugged. “Where else would he take them? Besides he has his eye on you to be the next Mrs. Windley. He’ll put up with me for a day or two, I assure you.”
“Come, Jo. You need a little adventure in your life.”
Unfortunately, that was very true. "Oh, all right. I'll go."
Now why did Papa's pleasure sound so much like a trap snapping shut?
Copyright © 2011 by Sally MacKenzie