Season for Temptation – Theresa Romain

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 future bride’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 longingly at the doorway.

“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 selfpossession. “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 intended.” 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 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 suppress a smile, 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.” “I suppose you’re right.” His companion sucked on her lower lip, deliberating. “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 trick 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 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 features 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. 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. Louisa. His mind reeled. How quickly he had forgotten all his nervousness, and even his 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? She was obviously a member of the family, but she looked nothing like his tall, elegant betrothed. “I’m sure we will,” he replied at last. His voice came out stiff and formal. The stuffy tone displeased 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.” “Rude company . ” She gave a sigh of pure envy. “You’re so lucky. I’m Julia, Louisa’s sister.” “Then you are lucky, too,” he replied. He was still confused, though. How had his dark-haired future bride 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. So—that is, 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. His smile dropped, 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 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, each smaller than the one before. 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.

Hallo, children. Do 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.” In turn, 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.” “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 gnawed at him. He wanted to continue talking to Julia, to know what she would have said next had they been left alone. He had felt an immediate pull toward her. 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. 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 intended husbands.

” She smiled at James. “Milk or lemon?” James blinked. “Er . have there been many?” “Many what? Lemons? Yes, we all like them prodigiously.” “No, intended husbands.” He held his breath waiting for her answer. Julia looked puzzled, regarding the tea tray as if looking for the men 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 back against the sofa 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 silently indeed,” he replied. “Surely 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 more than a token resistance. She eyed the tray, considering how many biscuits 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.

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 excused. “No need to let these biscuits go to waste.” “How resourceful of you,” he replied, hoisting his teacup in front of his face and making a choking sound. Now Julia was suspicious. “I could have sworn your cup was empty.” He set it down with poorly feigned surprise. “So it is. Well, my mistake.” “I hope you choke on your horrid sandwich,” Julia muttered.

She didn’t mean it, though. Every time the viscount smiled at her, she felt triumphant. Glowing, like she’d accomplished something wonderful. She wanted to keep looking at his eyes; she’d never seen anyone like him. It wasn’t that he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen, though he was undeniably good-looking, tall and lean. It was more that . he seemed happy. As if he was exactly where he wanted to be. If he’d only keep smiling at her like that, she’d keep eating biscuits to amuse him. Whatever it took to keep that smile on his face.

Actually, eating more biscuits was an excellent idea for her own sake as well. She wondered if it would be too rude to leave none for Louisa. Her sister had never said she hated watercress, after all. The mere fact that she’d never taken one of those sandwiches in her whole life meant nothing. It could just be a coincidence. She reached for another ginger biscuit and looked at the viscount expectantly. He picked up on her cue right away. “Must I take another sandwich to keep up with you?” “I knew it. You don’t like them either.” He shrugged.

“That would hardly be polite for me to admit, Miss Julia. Perhaps I should just say that I preferred the shortbread.” She was seized by a sudden urge to break down the final barrier between them. After all, she’d already bullied, insulted, fed, and amused him. If she couldn’t permit a future relative to call her by her Christian name after that, there was simply no good time to begin. “Please call me Julia if you like,” she offered. Then, wondering if she’d been too forward, she backed off, explaining, “Or if you insist on formality with one who is to be as a sister to you, then you must address me as Miss Herington. You see, I am the oldest of the Miss Heringtons. To be fair, the only one as well, as we are a family of remarriage.” Oh, dear, there she went talking her head off again.

Louisa always said she never used a word where a sentence would do, and never a sentence when she could use a paragraph. It didn’t seem to bother the viscount, though. “Very well,” he agreed at once. “I’ll be happy to call you Julia, and you must call me James. I am not the only Matheson, you see; I have a cousin with the same family name who’s got his eye on my estate, so for his sake if nothing else, informality must be introduced so that we are distinguished from one another. Imagine the confusion if you were to shout for Matheson at a party and got the wrong one.” “It would be much more likely to raise eyebrows if I were to shout James and get the attention of a dozen young men, or more likely the whole room. Wouldn’t everyone look at the ill-bred shouting girl? And then I’d have your attention no matter how I had addressed you.” James looked at her with mock suspicion. “Quite true, and most efficient it would be.

Were you to take up the habit of shouting, you need never address me by anything at all. But perhaps we had better leave it at first names, to be spoken at a moderate volume.” First names. Spoken at any volume, Julia liked the sound of that. JAMES COULD HARDLY believe he was saying such ridiculous things to a young woman he barely knew, but he was enjoying himself as he had never expected to when embarking on his journey to Stonemeadows Hall. An engagement of convenience ought not to be a matter of concern for a man who’d spent his life under the quizzing glass of the ton—and yet, he’d been as nervous entering the manor house as a young man entering a woman’s bedchamber for the first time. He was shamefully afraid he wouldn’t be able to perform up to the expectations of his audience. All right, perhaps that was taking the simile a bit far. But he’d been apprehensive. He was, after all, the head of his family now, which was still a rather startling realization even after a year.

And his family needed him, and so he needed Louisa. It was as simple as that. But he hadn’t felt at ease about the situation until he started talking to Julia. Was that wrong, or was it right? Suddenly, the door swept open again. James was grateful for the distraction. Louisa’s slim form appeared, attired for the outdoors in sensible walking boots and spencer. Her eyes at once found James’s, and she strode to greet him. “Oh, Lord Matheson—I mean, James—I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to meet you when you arrived. You must have made good time on the road; I’m glad of it. I have only just got back from a walk.

I do apologize.” She looked worried, as if she expected him to be displeased. He gave her his sunniest smile of reassurance, but the pucker remained between her delicate brows. Something must be amiss. He reached for her hands, hoping to soothe her. “My dear Louisa, please don’t give it another thought. It was a remarkably fine day for travel, and indeed I did make excellent time. I know I’ve arrived before I was expected. Since I’ve got here, I’ve been enjoying fine refreshments and some very, um, stimulating company.” Good Lord, had he just said the word “stimulating”? That came a bit too close to the truth.

He could have bitten his tongue for that. But Louisa seemed not to notice any unwitting double meaning in his words. Her gaze was instead drawn to the four small children swinging their heels in the air as they sat in a line on the long sofa at the back of the room, munching on biscuits and chattering among themselves. Her dark eyes widened at the sight, but her voice, when she spoke, was calm. “How lovely that the children have introduced themselves already,” she replied. “We are all to be family, and I hope you’ll forgive us for being somewhat unconventional in greeting you.” We are all to be family. Yes, just as he’d reminded himself. “Of course,” he replied. He hoped Louisa wouldn’t notice the catch in his voice.

He escorted her to a seat in a cushion-piled wing chair near the tea tray. As she sat, her brows again furrowed, and she shifted on the chair seat. “What on earth . ?” Leaning to one side, she felt behind an embroidered cushion and pulled out a much-creased sheaf of sheet music. She held it, bemused, then looked up at Julia. “The music!” Julia exclaimed. “Emilia’s pianoforte music. I’d forgotten all about it.” A vague memory stirred in James’s mind. “Music? Is that what you were shouting about when you ran in here?” “Shouting?” Louisa echoed, glancing from James to Julia and back again.

The corners of her mouth began to curve upward. “I’m terribly sorry I missed that.” “Nonsense. No one was shouting,” Julia said, eyeing James with a gimlet stare. “Honestly, the suggestion is ridiculous. As our illustrious companion and I have already discussed in some detail.” Louisa nodded. “I’m sure his lordship is teasing you.” “I would never do such a thing,” James demurred. Julia’s hand rose to cover her grin, but not soon enough to suppress a snort of laughter.

“Watercress sandwich?” she finally choked out, extending a plate to Louisa. “No, thank you,” Louisa replied. “I know how much you enjoy them, Julia. You go right ahead and finish them all up.” Her dark eyes sparkled with mischief, and James was sure Louisa knew exactly how much her sister enjoyed watercress. “I . I don’t care for any more,” Julia faltered. “I’m rather too full, and you know we’ll be dining fairly soon.” “Full?” Louisa raised her eyebrows. “Have you already had several watercress sandwiches, then? I didn’t realize they were such favorites of yours.

Perhaps we should arrange to have them served to you more often.” James raised his teacup to his lips so the sisters wouldn’t see him struggling not to laugh. Over the rim of the teacup, he saw Louisa look back to the sheaf of music she still held. The impishness vanished from her eyes, and again that pucker of worry knit her brows. James wondered what she was so worried about. Surely it wasn’t anything to do with him?

.

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