Kelly was in the shower, scrubbing at the mildew with an old Barbie toothbrush when she heard her doorbell ring. Just perfect. She was wearing a sprung black bathing suit, practical to clean the house in during the summer, but hardly a glamorous outfit in which to answer the door. When she was done with the grout, she had planned to go out to her pool-less backyard and spray herself off with the garden hose, loving the earthy, grassy scent of the sun-warmed water. She’d lie in the plastic chaise with a glass of artificially sweetened iced tea and a thick Jo Beverley medieval.
The bell rang again. Wrapping a threadbare beach towel at her waist, she went to the front door and opened it. Beyond the screen stood a man, not especially tall or handsome or young. He did have a nice face, though, crinkly warm brown eyes, and a writhing calico cat spitting and hissing in his arms. Kelly took an involuntary step backwards.
“Good morning,” said the man. “Is this your cat?”
Kelly tamped down the urge to laugh. This would make a good “cute” meeting for one of her books, but the cat was busy digging its claws into the guy and she doubted he’d see anything at all cute in the situation. “No, it’s the Rolersons’. It’s evil. I suggest you put it down at once.”
“Where do they live?” he asked, determination and a pronounced southern accent ringing in his voice.
“Next door, but they’re not home. They’re in Florida.”
“Florida? In July? Are they insane?”
“Absolutely. So’s their cat. Katy Allen is supposed to be feeding it. There’s a cat flap in the shed.”
“So, if I put it back it will only get out again?” he asked grimly.
“I’m afraid so. Look, you’re bleeding. Let it go and I’ll put something on those scratches.”
The man disengaged the claws from his skin and unceremoniously dropped the Rolersons’ cat. It dashed off through the lattice under Kelly’s front porch.
“Great, now I’ll be stuck with it,” Kelly said cheerfully. “Come on in. I’m Kelly King, by the way. You must be the guy who bought the MacLarens’ house.” As if she didn’t know already. She’d only seen him at a distance, but he looked right. Her neighbor Franny, the source of the books and the vibrating dildo, had gone over immediately last fall with a plate of cream-cheese brownies and reported back. Nice man, nothing special. Too young for Franny is what she meant. Franny was still bravely looking for husband number three.
“Paul Laurent. Nice to meet you.” He stuck out a square bloody hand and instantly withdrew it. “Sorry, I’d really better go home and deal with this.”
“It’s all right. I used to be a kindergarten teacher. I’ve got latex gloves up the wazoo. I was just cleaning the girls’ bathroom. Follow me.” Kelly wondered what he thought of her boobs hanging down to there and her make-shift sarong. Oh well. Thank God it covered up the cottage cheese thighs.
Quite efficiently, she gloved up and cleaned the gouges that Angel, the misnamed Rolerson cat, had left on Mr. Laurent’s tanned, toned and tattooed arms.
“Ouch,” was all he said, just the once.
“What did the cat do?” asked Kelly with interest.
“Got into my garden. Untied all my runner beans. Knocked the scarecrow over too.”
“What a pest. I guess I’m glad I don’t have a vegetable garden. We used to when the girls were little, but I’m too lazy to weed now.”
Inadvertently, Paul’s eyes strayed to Kelly’s little pooch that was exposed by the ragged towel. In his opinion, a few more vegetables and a little more exercise were in order. Paul weighed himself every day, and he was exactly the same weight he’d been, give or take a few pounds, when he joined the Navy thirty-five years ago when he was just out of high school.
“I’d be happy to share the harvest,” he said, as she bandaged up the worst of the wounds on his forearm. “Do your daughters live with you?”
“Goodness, no!” Kelly laughed. “As if they would. I’d cramp their style completely. Amy’s doing a museum internship in London and Lisa’s teaching in a private school outside Boston. Dorm mistress, field hockey coach, drama and speech teacher, the whole nine yards,” she said proudly.
“You and your husband must miss them, being so far away.”
Kelly’s smile faded a bit. “I’m divorced, actually.”
“Oh? Sorry, me too. How long were you married?”
“Almost twenty-five years. You?”
“Twenty-eight, but Christine figured I was only home for about ten of them. Unfortunately, when I retired from the Navy, my wife felt I cramped her style. I’d be out for months at a time, you know. She got pretty used to running the show. Didn't need me underfoot. When she realized she’d have to look at me every morning, she decided I had to ship out again for good.”
Kelly couldn’t think what to say. Certainly Paul Laurent was not that hard to look at. Changing the subject, she asked, “Any kids?”
“Five boys.” Seeing her shock, he grinned, transforming his plain face significantly. “I did have shore leave a few times, after all. Three grandchildren so far, all girls. That’s a switch, I can tell you.”
"Would you like some soda? Iced tea?"
"I'd better straighten out the mess in the garden." He paused. “Thanks for your help. I’ll bring by some vegetables for you later in the week.”
“Oh, that’s nice of you. Good luck with Angel.”
Paul snorted and the screen door slammed behind him. Kelly picked up the toothbrush and vigorously attacked the tiles once again.
She gingerly touched the deep blue anchor on his hard bicep. “Were you drunk?” she purred.
“Of course. And young. And stupid. But now, I’m right in fashion. Everyone is tattooed.”
“I’m not,” she swallowed nervously.
“You should be. He caressed the fullness of her left breast, placing a kiss above her heart. “Right here,” he whispered roughly. “My name right here, for always.”
She looked down and saw his name, magically real. “Peter,” she cried helplessly, “oh, Peter, for always.”
He entered her swiftly, and she spiraled into an abyss of pleasure, deeper than his submarine had ever plunged, wetter than the wildest storm-tossed ocean, wicked as the enemy he had once so recklessly pursued. They were free, free to love and laugh, to live again unfettered by grocery lists and hockey sticks, lesson plans and laundry. As she inhaled his sea-salt scent, the very essence of him, uniquely his own, he molded her hips in his steady square hands, driving into her remorselessly until she blossomed like the cabbage rose from his garden.
Talk about purple prose. That was about the worst thing she had ever written, and that was saying a lot. By God, that bit about the submarine was worthy of the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Kelly hit delete and put in Eleanor’s disk. Where were they? Oh, yeah. Lionel was declaring himself and Eleanor had to show she was not just an empty-headed little twit just waiting around for him to do so.
The Duke’s Delightful Dilemma/King
“Milady, there is the man to see you downstairs,” fluttered Heloise, her expressive dark eyes flashing.
“Milady, there is the man to see you downstairs,” fluttered Heloise, her expressive dark eyes flashing.
Eleanor turned from her mirror, a strand of seed pearls in her hand. “Could you fasten these for me please?” she asked with disinterest. She had seen the duke’s splendid black horse outside, tethered to the iron hitching post. She knew exactly who was here, but she had yet to know why.
“Certainment.” Heloise’s fingers flew nimbly, coiling the gifts of the sea around her mistress’ white throat. “Do you not wish to know who the handsome milord is, who is even now pacing like a lion in the drawing room?” she tittered, laughing at her own petit joke.
“I know exactly who is here, Heloise. Please go downstairs and ask cook to prepare a tea tray for us, with whatever is at hand. Tell her not to fuss.”
“Oui, Lady Eleanor.” Heloise dashed downstairs, the better to sneak a peek at the dashing duke.
About the time Lionel, still pacing, had checked his timepiece for the fifteenth time and Eleanor had finished writing seven thank-you notes to various dowagers of the ton, she condescended to descend the stairs.
“Good afternoon, your grace.” Eleanor sank gratefully in a taupe wing chair and made a great demonstration of yawning.
“Have I fatigued you already? I haven’t said a word.”
“But no doubt you will. I am just practicing.”
“Irksome wench. I wished to say good-bye to you before I left for Fr---my grandmother’s.”
“Did you not do that yesterday at Aunt Camilla’s? I could have sworn you were quite explicit about how I was to conduct myself in your absence.”
“Lady Eleanor---Ellie---we are once again at cross-purposes.” Lionel frowned. He had not spoken to her father yet, not that it would do any good. The man was usually passed out in his club or at Mrs. Brown’s beneath some comely whore, but no doubt the old man would wake up soon enough when Lionel discussed the marriage settlements. He was prepared to be generous to a fault to secure Eleanor’s future happiness.
Eleanor now stretched, resembling nothing so much as a self-satisfied cat. She twirled an auburn curl, waiting for the duke to say his piece. Whatever he proposed, she would soundly reject. She would not succumb to the manipulations of such a (something-or-other) man. (vexing? autocratic? Buy Roget’s Thesaurus.)
Lionel cleared his throat. “Lady Eleanor, you cannot help to have observed I have had an interest in your welfare for some time. What I am about to say, I have never said to any other woman.”
Eleanor gave a brittle laugh. “What, are you now going to tell me you’ve never loved another, have desired me since I was a veritable child and wish to make me the next duchess of Cleves?”
Lionel’s full lips thinned to a sad smile. “Am I so transparent, then? You have taken the words from my mouth.”
Eleanor paled. “You’re joking!”
“I am not.” Suddenly, Lionel was at her feet, his capable hands stroking hers.
Eleanor shook her head stubbornly. “I do not love you, my lord. I have seen what happens in a loveless marriage. I will never subject myself to such misery.”
“You are not your mother, Ellie, and I am certainly not your father.”
“Are you not? I have heard all about your exploits since you were a beardless youth. I understand you even had Mrs. Brown herself, and every one knows she gives herself to very few of her patrons.”
Lionel dropped her hands in shock. “Ellie! What do you know of such things? Who has filled your head with such reprehensible rubbish?”
“Your greatest acolyte, my brother Randolph. He wants to follow in your footsteps, and is fast approaching you. You had better look over your shoulder, Lord Cleves.”
Lionel rose, a haze of red anger washing over him. “Not only is your brother an idiot and a hopeless gambler, but he is also a liar. Iris—that is, Mrs. Brown is nothing to me.”
“What about Venus? Athena? And the rest of her ‘young ladies?’ ”
He’d have to throttle Randolph soundly and then send him to Barbados to manage the Cleves sugar plantation in perpetuity. “I have never claimed to be a monk, you know,” Lionel said shortly. “I would expect subsequent to our marriage, I would not need to seek my comfort so far from home.”
“There will be no marriage, Lord Cleves. I do not choose to immolate myself on the pile of your conquests. Ah, here is our tea. Milk and sugar?”
“I don’t want any bloody tea! When I get back, we will have this discussion again.”
“With the same result, my lord. I am not interested in your offer, today, tomorrow, two weeks from now, next year, in the afterlife. Some rock cake?”
“No thank you. I see I have been premature in my request. You shall have time to think, but not, hopefully, until ‘death do us part.’ You will change your mind.”
Eleanor stared at the back of his close-fitting brown coat as Lionel, full of pride, stalked out of her drawing room. It simply would not do for him to think he could waltz in here, snap his fingers and bend her to his will.
Save. In her spiral notebook Kelly wrote, Thesaurus. Get cookbook and find out what rock cake is.
Eleanor dashed after him. “Lionel! Wait! There’s no point in letting all that food go to waste. Cook will be ever so cross.”
Lionel turned, glancing down at Eleanor’s appealing little face. He had a few moments to spare, he believed, before he was sent off by her into some corkbrained adventure. His valet was probably packing his bags for France this very minute. Lionel's stomach was rumbling a bit.This was probably going to be the last decent meal he'd have before he sliced off some traitor's tongue. Who could resist a pretty girl and a plate full of food? Certainly not he.
Lionel settled himself into a rickety chair. My, but the Buxtons were done-up. There wasn’t a piece of furniture fit for a man his size to sit on. But he was a hero, and properly proportioned.
“That scene went about right, I suppose, although I don't think I should have proposed quite so soon. Makes me look a bit of a wuss. Pass me a scone please, then, with some of that raspberry jam.”
Eleanor looked at his loaded Limoges plate. “You’ll get fat, my lord, and have to wear stays. You’ll creak like old Lord Piddlestone.” She lavishly buttered a warm scone, licking crumbs from her fingers, then slipped a raspberry-tinged spoon into her mouth.
Lionel closed his eyes and thought of England. And Scotland. And Wales. He shook his head and sipped his tea. Vile stuff.
“Nonsense. I have to keep fit in my line of work, yet must keep up my strength.” He bit into the delicious morsel and mumbled before swallowing, “Are you sure you won’t agree to marry me?”
Eleanor shook her head, her fringe of curls bouncing adorably around her heart-shaped face. “I don’t think I’m ready. I’ve only been out of the schoolroom for six weeks. She was going to make me much older but I talked her out of it. Who wants to be one of those ape-leading bluestockings who quotes that Wollstonecraft woman ad infinitum? None of that “take your spectacles off and lose your hairpins” stuff for me. Lucky you. Now you won’t have to fall in love with a dowdy horse-faced woman whose beauty only you can see. I’m a diamond of the first water, am I not?”
“Indeed,” replied Lionel, “and so modest, Halfling.”
Eleanor threw a slice of lemon at him. “Where was I? Of course Papa can not afford a proper come-out, but Aunt Camilla says she will see what she can do for me. I’m getting presented to Prinny in the next chapter, so I expect I’ll be allowed to attend some evening entertainments. Perhaps I’ll see you around town.”
Not quite full from the cress sandwich, ham biscuit, rock cake and scone, Lionel chomped into some frosted fruitcake with gusto. “You be careful of that old goat. He’s an awful lecher.”
“Oh, I'm sure he won’t cause me any trouble. He very rarely has much to do in any Regency romances except stand at the end of a ballroom and make people nervous.”
“Don’t forget the royal bastard series.”
“Well, I’m not about to be hijacked into those books. She might skip writing the scene altogether as she’s not perfectly sure about royal protocol. She’s going to Google, I believe. Anyway, if we get married too soon the HEA will just have to be postponed anyway because we’ll have all sorts of stupid misunderstandings and you’ll be sexually frustrated. We’re a book, you know, not a novella.”
“HEA?” Lionel’s fierce black brows knit in puzzlement. He was already frustrated enough.
“Happily Ever After, you foolish man! You know I’ll come to you in the end.”
“Not soon enough, Ellie. Hold still.” He licked a bit of frosting from the corner of her mouth, tasting vanilla, sugar and something less familiar, essence of Eleanor. Crushing her to his chest, he drank in the wonder of the woman he loved, leaving her breathless and buoyant.
“Be safe, Lion,” she whispered. “Come home to me.”
He nuzzled into her slender throat. “You won’t forget to bone-up on some elementary first-aid, will you?”
“I pledge I’ll be a regular Florence Nightingale.”
Eleanor patted his cheek. “Poor Lion. She’s a famous nurse from the Crimean War, but that hasn’t happened yet. Nothing to worry about. You’ll no doubt be dead by then.”
“Way to buck up a fellow, Ellie. I’ll just take my leave then while I still breathe.” He straightened his massive shoulders and marched from the drawing room, knowing he was about to be subjected to yet another dangerous indignity somewhere across the channel. Damn her anyway.