New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

of Contemporary Women's Fiction, Romantic Comedies, and Historical Romances

 

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Regency-era Anthology where our readers chose the plot!

Dear Reader,

We had so much fun writing the four novellas in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (Avon, 2008) that we decided we must do it again—with a difference. In that book each of our stories used the same three plot elements—hero and heroine meet at an inn, they have not seen each other for ten years, their story encompasses no longer than 24 hours. In that anthology, we were the ones who dreamed up those common plot points, and the result was four novellas that were very different though they were based on the same premise.

This time we decided to take on a greater challenge and let a reader tell us what story line we must use. Avon set up a competition, which drew far more interest and participation than we had dreamed possible. From more than a thousand entries we chose twelve semi-finalists. It was incredibly difficult as there were far more than a dozen wonderful ideas. But we had to look at a plotline that would excite and challenge us and yet not confine us so tightly that it would be virtually impossible for our stories to be different from one another.

The four of us voted on our favorites among the twelve semi-finalists and narrowed the field to four. Then the four finalist plots were posted online, and readers voted for their favorite. The winner was Phyllis Post, and this was her winning submission:

1.  The younger brother of a titled lord, the hero had a career in the army but has lived as a recluse since returning from the war with France. 

2.  The heroine is shy or unattractive and after many Seasons has never had a suitor. 

3.  The hero's brother has only daughters and asks his brother to marry in order to try to ensure that succession stays within their family. 

This is the story each of us has written here. We did not confer at all and so had no idea until long after our stories were written and at the publishing house how similar they might be. But our conviction, as it was last time, was and is that a writer's personal voice and imagination will make any story, no matter how stereotypical, uniquely and wonderfully her own. We hope you agree.

Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh, Jacquie D'Alessandro, and Candice Hern

 

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     “There are some exceptionally fine portraits here in the gallery, Captain Trentwell,” said Miss Markham.

     “And also some rather hideous ones.”  Alec escorted her a bit further down the corridor then nodded toward a large gilt framed painting.  “This one, for example.”

     Miss Markham leaned forward to peer at the painting of Alec’s great great great grandfather.  Her shoulder brushed his and he pulled in a quick breath--one that filled his head with her subtle floral scent.  Unable to stop himself, he bent his head closer to her and breathed in again.  Bloody hell, she smelled good.  Like summer in the country--flowers and sunshine with a bit of spice thrown in. 

     “He is quite...” She turned toward him and her words trailed off.  Her face was less than a foot away from his.  If he leaned forward just a little bit he’d be able to touch his lips to hers, a realization that hit him like a steamy slap.  She took a quick step back and her shoulders bumped the wall next to the painting.  A lifetime of manners demanded he step back as well. 

     Instead he stepped forward and planted one hand on the wall next to her head.

Her quick intake of breath sent a dark thrill through him, one he couldn’t explain and was apparently helpless to control because in spite of his better judgment and common sense both demanding he move away from her, he instead leaned closer.       

     “He is quite what, Miss Markham?”

     She moistened her lips, a gesture that had him fisting his hand against the paneling.  “He is quite...formidable.”

     He nodded slowly.  “Yes.  And forbidding.  As a child I always found that painting frightening.  I hated walking down this corridor alone.  The painting seemed to watch me, and every time I walked by I feared he’d reach out and grab me.”
     “You’ve obviously overcome your fear.”

     “True.  But I’m not alone.”   No, instead he stood improperly close to a woman to whom he needed to confess his darkest secret, his deepest shame.  A woman whose nearness had his heart pounding hard enough to bruise his ribs. 

     “No, you’re not alone,” she whispered.

     “You’re not afraid he’ll reach out and grab you?”

     Her gaze searched his, and Alec forced himself to remain still, to not give in to the craving clawing at him to press her against the wall and find out if she felt as soft and luscious as she looked. 

“No,” she whispered.  “I’m not afraid.”

     “Perhaps you should be.”

     “Perhaps.  But I’m not.”

 

 

 

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Chapter One

 

London

April, 1816

 

Prologue

 

Dear Sir:

Per your request to keep you informed on the whereabouts and activities of Miss Penelope Markham, I am writing to inform you that she has returned to England from the continent.  As you know, she wasn’t scheduled to do so for another two months, however an unfortunate situation arose in Italy, one involving her making a sculpture of a most inappropriate nature, embroiling her in a scandal that resulted in her being dismissed as art instructor to Lord and Lady Bentley’s children.  Given the lurid circumstances regarding this matter, I fear it will be impossible for Miss Markham to find another position, especially as she will most emphatically not receive a recommendation from Lord and Lady Bentley.  Indeed, they have informed everyone in their circle of Miss Markham’s disgrace, and word of the incident has spread like wildfire, casting her in a most unfavorable light.  A shame, as I understand Miss Markham possesses great artistic talent.  Sadly, she clearly also possesses a rebellious, wayward streak, much to her detriment.  Miss Markham arrived in London yesterday and has taken lodging at Exeter House in Covent Garden.  Her future plans are unknown at this time, although given Lord and Lady Bentley’s determination, it is safe to surmise that whatever they are, they hold little promise.

I shall await further instructions from you and remain at your disposal.

Sincerely,

Harold P. Wheeler, Solicitor


 

Chapter 1

 

Alec Trentwell stood in the doorway of a dilapidated coffee house and stared across the cobblestone street at Exeter House.  The faded brick façade and peeling, dull paint lent the boarding establishment a tired, worn air, much like the haggard, hollow-eyed prostitute assessing him from the adjacent alleyway.  She tugged her bodice lower in invitation, filling Alec with a combination of pity and revulsion.  He shook his head and she shrugged, then sank into the shadows.

He thought of Penelope Markham and his hands tightened into fists.  Bloody hell, this was no place for an unmarried, unescorted woman.  In spite of--or perhaps because of--the crowds frequenting the nearby market, danger lurked in every doorway, every shadow.  The area was maybe marginally safe during the day, but at night thieves, footpads, prostitutes and pickpockets made their living preying on the hoards of theatre goers.  He shuddered to think of what could happen to a lone woman.  Especially to the one particular woman he sought.

Penelope Markham.  Although he’d never met her, through the strong bond he’d shared with her brother, Alec felt as if he knew her.  Certainly he felt a deep sense of responsibility toward her.  In spite of the gut churning emotion that gripped him at the prospect of facing her, he’d intended to do so upon her return to England--an occasion he’d believed was still months away until this morning when he’d read his solicitor’s note.  He’d planned to spend those months in seclusion in the small cottage he’d purchased in Little Longstone--another of his plans that had sadly gone awry.  He should have known that a mere three hour buffer between himself and London and his well-meaning, but interfering family would be far too easy to breech.   One minute he’d been existing in the solitude he craved, then the next his brother had descended and Alec’s life had changed.  Again.  And not for the better.  Again.

Damn it, he was tired of change.

In truth, he was simply tired.  Of everything. 

But there were promises to keep.  And he intended to keep them, no matter how much he dreaded the prospect of doing so. 

 The door to Exeter House opened and Alec stilled at the sight of the woman who emerged.  Based on Edward’s description of his sister, and her unmistakable resemblance to Alec’s former sergeant, he was certain the tall, bespectacled, dark-haired woman was Penelope Markham.  Dressed in a plain brown walking gown and matching spencer, she clutched what appeared to be an oversized sketch pad.  She glanced in both directions, as if aware of the dangers lurking about and debating which route was safer.

She frowned and pushed her glasses higher on her nose, a gesture that tightened Alec’s throat.  How many times had he seen young Edward doing that exact same thing?  He didn’t know.  Only knew he’d give everything he owned to see his sergeant do it again.

But dead men didn’t push up their glasses.

Just then Miss Markham’s gaze caught his and nailed him in place.  Her eyes seemed to pierce him, making him feel as if she could see his soul.  His secrets.  And the countless lies that writhed in the empty darkness there.

For the space of several heartbeats he couldn’t move.  Couldn’t breathe.  Couldn’t do anything save stare back at her.  A wave of hot shame washed through him, making him feel as if he stood in a ring of fire, burned by the guilt that had been his constant companion for the past ten months, since that horrific day at Waterloo. 

She blinked several times, then turned away.  Clutching her sketch pad to her chest, she walked with a purposeful stride toward the muted sounds of the nearby Covent Garden Market.  Alec shook his head, jerking himself free of the stupor into which he’d momentarily fallen, and started across the street.  He’d taken less than a half dozen steps when a shabbily dressed man emerged from a shadowed alleyway and blocked Miss Markham’s path.

“Where’s a pretty piece like ye off to in such a hurry?” the man asked with a leer.

Miss Markham gasped and stepped back.  Outrage and disgust ripped through Alex.  In a single, swift motion he pulled his knife from his boot and sprinted across the street.  The man reached out to grab Miss Markham’s arm, but before he could touch her, Alec stepped between them. 

“You have precisely two seconds to disappear,” he said in a deadly voice.

The other man narrowed his eyes.  His lips curled back, showing rotted, broken teeth. “And if I don’t?”

Alec pressed the point of his blade under the man’s ribs.  “Then I’ll gut you like fish.  I may do so anyway, just because you sicken me.  I definitely will if I ever see you so much as look at this woman again.”  He pressed the knife in harder and the man sucked in a quick breath.  “Any questions?”

A combination of hatred and fear flickered in the man’s eyes.  He shook his head, stepped back, then disappeared into the shadowy alleyway from where he’d first appeared, his footfalls echoing then fading to silence.

Alec released a breath he realized wasn’t quite steady and ruthlessly shoved aside the mental pictures bombarding him, accompanied by the terrifying echo of men’s and horses’ screams...images and sounds he normally only experienced in the dark of night while lying alone in his bed.  But the threat of bloodshed and the feel of a knife hilt gripped in his hand had brought the vivid memories sneaking out into the light of day, rendering them even more starkly horrifying.  He needed several seconds to compose himself before turning around.  When he did, he found himself staring into startled gold-flecked brown eyes magnified by spectacles.  Miss Markham stood less than a foot away, wide-eyed and pale.

“Are you all right?” he asked. 

She moistened her lips.  “Y...yes.  Thank you, sir.  I--“

“We need to get you away from here, Miss Markham.”  He lifted his hand and whistled for his carriage which waited at the end of the street. 

Her eyes widened further.  “How do you know my name?”

Alec had imagined this moment when he’d meet her countless times over the last ten months.  He’d prepared for it, running the scenario running through his mind over and over again.  He’d introduce himself then tell her what he had to say.  Quick, impersonal, emotionless.  Then he’d return to his solitude.  And try to forget the unforgettable.

Never once had he considered that he’d be standing on the street, a cold sweat covering his body, stomach knotted, heart and head pounding, gripping a knife after scaring off a man who would have done God knows what to her. 

Nor had he imagined the impact of looking directly into those gold-flecked eyes.  Or of her standing close enough for him to notice the pale freckles dotting her nose.  Close enough to detect the subtle scent of flowers rising from her skin...skin that looked like velvet cream.  Nor had he even once considered that a wayward curl of glossy mahogany hair might blow across her cheek, begging his fingers to tuck the spiral back into place.  Or that her mouth would look so lush, yet so vulnerable at the same time, making it nearly impossible to tear his gaze away from it when she moistened her lips.

He needed to pull himself together.  Escort her to his carriage.  Yet his legs felt like stone.  He needed to speak, but all the words he’d planned to say fled his mind.

     Wariness filled her gaze and she retreated a step.  The movement jerked him back to his senses and he cleared his throat.  “Please don’t be alarmed.  My name is Alec Trentwell.  I knew your brother.  In the army.  I was--“

     “--Edward’s commanding officer,” she broke in.  Her expression cleared.  “I know your name well, Captain Trentwell.  Indeed, given how frequently Edward mentioned you in his letters, I feel as if I already know you.”  Confusion again clouded her features.  “But how is it that you are here and know who I am?”

     “I...” Once again Alec found himself at a loss.  “I heard you’d returned to England and I wished to see you.”

     Crimson bloomed in her cheeks.  “Oh, dear.  Clearly word of what happened in Italy has reached London.  Truly, the entire incident was misunderstood--”

“Miss Markham, I wish only to talk about your brother.  I was with him that last day at Waterloo, and there are...things you should know.”

His carriage halted beside them and he nodded toward the black lacquer vehicle pulled by two matched bays.  “As this is not the safest place, would you consent to accompanying me somewhere else?  Somewhere we can talk?”

Her gaze roamed his face, and he was struck by the intelligence shining in her eyes.  “Of course, Captain Trentwell.  Edward thought the world of you.  I’d be very interested to hear anything you have to tell me about my brother.”  Her voice quavered and a shadow of unmistakable grief crossed her features.  “I miss him terribly.”

She averted her gaze, but not before he saw her blink back tears.  His hands clenched inside his gloves.  Bloody hell, this was going to be so much harder than he ever imagined.  He forced himself to move, to open the carriage door bearing the Earl of Crandall’s seal, grateful that he’d opted to use his brother’s carriage rather than hiring a hack.  He held out his hand to help Miss Markham inside.  She set her gloved hand in his and he frowned at the odd tingle of warmth that shot up his arm.  Before he could fully examine the puzzling sensation, her fingers slid away and she sat on the pale gray velvet squabs.  Alec shook his head, then looked up at the coachman.  “Hyde Park,” he instructed. 

“Yes, sir.”

Before entering the carriage, Alec scanned the area.  When he was satisfied no immediate danger threatened them, he slipped his knife back into his boot then entered the carriage and settled himself on the seat opposite Miss Markham.  And stilled at her expression.  Bloody hell, there was no mistaking the gratitude shining in her eyes.

“I haven’t properly thanked you for your intervention, Captain Trentwell.”

“What were you thinking, going about unescorted--especially in Covent Garden?”  The question came out far more brusquely than he’d intended.  Certainly far more brusquely than could be considered polite.  But damn it, tension still gripped his entire body.

Color flooded her cheeks, but instead of shrinking into her seat at his rebuke, she hoisted a brow and raised her chin.  “A woman of my age hardly requires an escort to walk to the market.  While I never would have ventured out alone at night, I believed I’d be safe enough during the day.  Clearly I was mistaken.”

“Clearly.”

“You quite saved the day and I’m most grateful for your bravery.  Not that I’m surprised--Edward always referred to you as a hero in his letters.”

The knot in Alec’s stomach cinched tighter and he barely swallowed the bitter sound that rose in his throat.  Hero.  Bloody hell, was there a word in the entire English language he detested more than that one?  No.  In the first few weeks following his return from the war that damn word had been relentlessly heaped upon him, a weight falling upon his shoulders until he’d felt crushed.  Until he couldn’t stand it any longer and had escaped to Little Longstone.  To obscurity.  And solitude.  To a place where he didn’t have to live a lie.  Or pretend he was something he wasn’t.

Like everyone else who’d anointed him a hero, Miss Markham was wrong.  But she would soon know the error of her ways.  The gratitude and admiration currently glowing in her eyes would quickly dissipate after he told her what he’d sought her out to say.  After she knew the truth.  The truth that ate at him every day.  The truth she deserved to know.

That he’d killed her brother.

 

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Chapter One

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Reviews

 

"Each author utilizes her inimitable talents to concoct a beautiful love story in another wonderful collection! Kudos to all four authors!" Night Owl Reviews

"A perfect 10 rating.  Each of these stories is really love at first sight with the ulterior motive. Each man must convince his woman that she is the one he wants forever and does all he can to persuade her. Each has its poignant moment when each person realizes that it was meant to be regardless of how they may have started. These stories were a wonderful read from talented authors." Historical Romance Writers

"Four renowned authors use the same plots in stories that are as unique as the “ladies of the genre” who create them….Anything goes in these wonderfully delicious, sexy and inventive love stories."  Romantic Times 

 

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Excerpt

Chapter One

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Reader Comments (coming soon)

Awards

 

Reader Comments

 

Coming Soon

 

Top of Page

Excerpt

Chapter One

Reviews

Reader Comments (coming soon)

Awards


Awards

 

 

 

Top of Page

Excerpt

Chapter One

Reviews

Reader Comments (coming soon)

Awards

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and blogging with the Whine Sisters -- stop by and say hi!

         

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