None of these things are scaring off bookish but strong-willed Amelia Bishop’s stuffy, egotistical fiancé.
The only thing left is to entice childhood friend Nicholas Wakefield into a truly engagement-ending scandal. The Wakefields are the height of propriety, and Nicholas’s parents have made it clear a wife from the neighboring Bishop family would be unacceptable…
But Nicholas would give up his family and his fortune if Amelia would ever see him as more than just a childhood friend. He’ll go along with her scheme, even if it means ruining them both, because he’s got a plan that will change her mind about him being merely the boy next door.
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It was late afternoon when Nicholas left the study and he was exhausted. There was only one person who would understand all of the feelings he couldn’t quite find words for. He promised himself he was only going to talk to his friend. He wouldn’t do something foolish, like try to kiss her again. Not that Amelia would notice. She had a remarkable knack for attributing his romantic gestures to playful teasing.
He crossed his property onto the Bishop estate and let himself in. Today, it was a good thing the Bishop household treated him like a member of the family. The staff were rushing around in a frenzy cleaning and moving things in preparation for the engagement party. If he’d waited for someone to notice and announce him, he might have waited all day.
He found Julia first, in the upstairs library, leaning precariously over the back of an armchair with her head angled to an open window.
“The house is in a flurry. Do you know—”
“Shh!” She nearly tipped herself and the chair over in the process of shushing him. “They’ll hear you.”
“If only this were the most ridiculous position I’d ever found you in,” he answered in a loud whisper. “Who will hear?”
“Amelia and Embry.”
The serious fiancé? They were together, down there. Were they affectionate? Did Amelia laugh musically and touch his arm like she did with Nicholas? He crossed to Julia’s eavesdropping spot. “When did he get here?”
“What does he want?”
“Amelia, judging by his offer of marriage.”
“Low blow, Bishop.” A brief moral debate occurred inside Nicholas. He should mind his own business. Amelia’s relationship with Embry was private. He didn’t have any right to assuage the burning need to see how they were together. “Scoot over.”
“You won’t fit.”
“I will if you scoot over.”
She rolled her eyes at him, but she was smiling as she edged to one side of the seat cushion. “Remember that time in the hayloft when we made you—”
“Shh!” Nicholas adjusted until he could see the couple standing on the terrace below. “What are they doing down there?”
“We don’t know. Mother’s in fits thinking Embry’s trying to call off the engagement.”
Hope surged inside him. He squashed it down. “Why would he do that?”
“Because we’re unmannered wantons.”
“Well, obviously.” Nicholas grinned as he dodged the elbow she tried to jab into his ribs. “But surely he knew that before today.”
Below them, Montrose reached into his waistcoat and pulled out something wrapped in silk. When he uncovered it, Julia let out a soft whistle. “Pretty.”
“It doesn’t suit her at all.” If Nicholas ever brought Amelia jewelry, it would be delicately made with brilliant sapphires, not some heavy antique.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be watching this,” Julia said. “It’s certain to upset you.”
Upset him? Like he was still in the nursery and someone had denied him a sweet? “I am a grown man.”
“You’re in love with my sister. Torturing yourself is perverse.”
“And you’re not torturing yourself?”
“Of course I am,” she said, attention riveted to the scene below. “But we already knew I was perverse. You, we still had hope for.”
“I will worry about myself, thank you very much.”
“As you wish.”
It was possible Nicholas had spoken too soon. As they watched, Montrose reached for Amelia’s cheek. He had to turn away when Amelia’s face was blocked out by Montrose lowering his head to kiss her.
Julia’s gasp was full of degenerate glee.
The curse that left his lips at full volume didn’t even register for Nicholas until Julia ducked down and speared him with a glare.
“For God’s sake.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Unless the curse had been loud enough for them to hear on the terrace and had disrupted the kiss by some miracle. Then, he was delighted.
She twisted, sharing the chair with him in an awkward slump. “I knew you couldn’t handle it.”
“What’s he even doing kissing her? It’s highly inappropriate.”
“Remember the first time you tried to kiss Mia?”
“Liar.” Julia grinned. “She was so happy with her new dress Papa brought her and she looked quite nice.”
“Perfect,” Nick corrected. “She looked perfect.”
Julia snickered. “How could you not have realized how much mud you’d picked up crossing the property?”
“I was distracted.” Nick had been captivated by the sun glinting off Amelia’s hair, the way her face lit up making it seem like all the sweetness of her was bursting free—he’d been in a trance. When he’d moved to touch her…
“I honestly never knew she was that strong. With how hard she shoved you, I thought we’d have to call a doctor for sure.”
The bruises from his fall over the retaining wall had been nothing compared to the bruise to his pride. And neither of those held a candle to the agony of watching some other man get to be her first kiss. “She can’t marry him.”
Julia rolled her eyes. “Has something fundamental changed about your circumstances to make it possible for you to honorably pursue my sister?”
Nicholas could not say that it had. His willingness to stand up to his parents on the issue had certainly changed, but his ability to provide for her and his station in life remained the same. He was still a second son. A redundancy. His livelihood relied on the goodwill of his parents, and they would never approve of Amelia.
“I didn’t think so. I wish things were different, but they’re not. Give it up, Nick.”
“Obviously not. There’s no future for her with you. Leave it alone. Don’t ruin what will likely be her only chance at a normal life.”
Julia was right. Nicholas couldn’t give her what Montrose could. With Nick, there would be no title and no security. It would be a hard life, full of uncertainty.
If he truly loved her, he would let her be happy without him. It didn’t matter that he’d written her letters every day. It didn’t matter that he’d loved her with every breath in his body since the day they met. That was the past—their past—but the happiest future for her was clearly with Montrose.
After Embry left, Amelia went straight to her room to reflect on the events of the afternoon. However, instead of privacy, she found Julia leafing through the book she’d left on her bedside table.
“Oh for goodness—”
“Don’t even start. After everything I’ve put up with today, there’s no chance you’re not telling me every possible detail.” Julia patted the bedside in invitation.
Amelia stomped over with as little grace as possible. There would be no dissuading Julia, and Amelia hardly planned to keep it to herself. She’d just hoped to have little time to consider how she felt on her own first.
Julia smiled. “So. Lord Montrose kissed you.”
“How did it happen? Were you expecting it?”
“I should hope so. I asked him to.”
“You what?” Julia grabbed her by the shoulders. “Amelia Marie Bishop. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“I just wanted to know.” Amelia stared down at her lap.
Julia watched her. “It didn’t end up how you wanted it to.”
Amelia shrugged. She couldn’t say if it had or it hadn’t. It hadn’t been bad, certainly.
“I thought it would make me…tingly.”
Julia raised an eyebrow.
Amelia rushed on to avoid having to explain that particular discovery. “And at first it was nice. His lips were against mine and it was sweet. There was a definite chance for tingles.”
“And then he swallowed me? His tongue was in my mouth and it was so strange and I could barely breathe and it was… it was a lot. A lot all at once.”
“His tongue—in your mouth?”
“I don’t know!” Amelia threw her arms up in a general plea to the universe.
Julia considered the issue with her usual pragmatism. She folded her hands in her lap and pinned Amelia with a focused stare. “Did Embry seem to enjoy it?”
“Yes. Very much. Perhaps too much.”
“How do you mean?”
“He was out of breath and afterward, he, erm, apologized for his ardor.”
“That’s good, then.” Julia nodded. “Obviously you were decent enough at it if you inspired him to passion.”
Amelia had rather hoped to be inspired to her own ardor. It would have cleared up a few concerns rattling around in her head regarding her new reaction to Nicholas. Instead, it had only confused things even further.
“So tell me about these tingles you were hoping for.”
Oh, bother. “It’s nothing.”
“Clearly it’s not. It’s not like you to ask Embry to kiss you, but you did. Because of this tingly notion.”
Absolutely nothing was sacred when your sister was a busybody know-it-all. Not a single thing. But why hadn’t her reaction to Embry been more exciting? “When Nicholas and I walked to the woods—”
“You bloody idiots. Did he kiss you?”
“No!” Amelia fell back on the bed. “But I think he almost did. I was leaning in and he was leaning in, and then suddenly it was all dreadfully intense.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it.” Julia fell back beside her, shaking her head.
Amelia put her hands over her face. “What do I do, Julia? What if Embry never gives me tingles?”
Julia wasn’t listening. She was too busy muttering at the ceiling. “I knew something had happened. When Nicholas came over today and heard Embry was here. I should have known. I should have put a stop to it.”
“Nicholas was here? Today?”
“Bloody idiot. I told him he didn’t want to watch.”
“You were watching us?” Amelia turned on her side. “Julia!”
“Oh please. Don’t pretend you’re surprised.”
“How could you let Nicholas…” Amelia trailed off. She was back in that murky territory. Why shouldn’t Nicholas see her kiss her fiancé? Nor was it unusual for Julia to include Nicholas. The three of them had been inseparable since Amelia was six years old. Until Nicholas went away, they were as close a trio as Amelia and Julia were on their own.
“This is a disaster, Amelia.”
“Well,” Julia said, sitting up with purpose. “You must come to your senses, forget about tingles, and forget about Nicholas Wakefield.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. Nicholas is my friend.”
“A friend you have an attraction toward.”
Amelia couldn’t stop the blush from creeping up her face. “Nicholas is attractive. Don’t tell me you don’t find him handsome.”
“I’m not engaged. I can find whoever I fancy handsome.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair,” Julia said. She pointed at Amelia, all traces of humor gone. “Forget Nicholas. Marry Embry.”
“Obviously I’m going to marry Embry.” It wasn’t like anyone else was offering.
Julia tipped Amelia’s chin toward her, forcing their eyes to meet. “Good.”
“That’s settled, then.”
“It is.” Only it didn’t feel settled. In the place at Amelia’s center where the tingles started anytime she thought about Nicholas, it was anything but settled.
KIMBERLY BELL is a 2015 RWA Golden Heart Finalist and 2014 Maggie Award winner. She writes historical romances from her home near the beach in San Luis Obispo, California. She lives with her shepherd-coyote mix rescue. Visit her website for more information!