Betina Krahn

Publisher: HARLEQUIN
Published: July 2009
Line: Harlequin Blaze
ISBN-13: 978-0-373-79483-6
Copyright 2009 by Betina Krahn

And just like that, it was done.  She was to become a mistress to the Prince of Wales.  She glanced at St. Lawrence as the baron held her chair for her at the tea table.  The baron was ebullient, but “Nimble Jack” seemed oddly contained upon learning of his mission’s success.

She rang the china bell on the table to summon the tea.

"I suppose my first question is, will I have to remove to London?”

“I should imagine that will depend on a number of things,” the baron said, relishing his role.  “His Highness travels a great deal.  His secretary makes the necessary arrangements.  I would never presume to speak for the prince in matters unauthorized, but I gathered that he intends to join you here in the Lake Country.  He is fond of country air and hunting.”  A weasel-like smile appeared.  “But, of course, there will be your husband to consider."

She frowned, wondering if he had taken leave of his senses.

"My husband, sir, is deceased.”

“Of course he is.”  The baron gave a tense little laugh and she saw St. Lawrence stiffen.  “I meant to say your new husband.”

Just then Old Robert rushed in with a silver teapot that he had forgotten to pick up with a mitt.  The old fellow dropped it onto the table with a sloshing thud –“Tea be sarved”—and then tottered out, grumbling as he nursed his overheated hand.

“My what?”  She turned to the baron, her blood stopped in her veins.

“Your new husband, madam.”  The baron straightened, pulling authority around him like a cloak.  “The prince would never enter into relations with an unmarried woman.  That would never do.  To leave a woman he is associated with unprotected and exposed to the world. . . the prince would never be so callous."

Her jaw loosened but thankfully did not drop.

“I am a widow, sir,” she said, leaning forward.  “I live independently and have no husband to object to such an arrangement.  How can the prince possibly imagine I would wish to acquire one now?”

“But you must acquire one, madam, or relations with the prince cannot proceed.”  The baron looked scandalized by the prospect.  “The prince has made it his firm—and most wise—practice to spend time only with ladies whose husbands can provide comfort for them once his time with them is done.”  The baron produced a handkerchief and dabbed his moist lip.

"This is absurd,” she said, looking at St. Lawrence, who took up the argument.

“If I may be blunt” –he clenched his jaw as if he’d just sucked a lemon— “there is always the possibility of consequences from such relations.  The prince has left no ‘consequences’ in his path to date, and is determined to see that any born to his special friends will have fathers of their own.  As heir to our good queen’s throne and the future head of the Church of England, to do otherwise would be unthinkable to him.”

Mariah felt the flush of color she had just experienced now drain from her face.  Consequences: a polite way of saying children.  The prince intended to leave no royal bastards in his wake.  Fastidious of him, she thought furiously, to take his future roles as seriously as he took his pleasures.  He bedded women thither and yon but insisted— whether from fear of public opinion or his own moral quirk— that the natural consequences of those liaisons never be laid at his doorstep.

"Why on earth would I wish to exchange vows with a man, only to betray them with the prince?” she demanded, gripping the edge of the table.

“Because,” St. Lawrence said tightly, “it is necessary.  And if you are anything, Mrs. Eller, you are a woman who recognizes the necessary and turns it to her advantage.”

She felt struck physically by that assessment.  Rising abruptly from the table, she went to the long windows that overlooked the side yard.  Anger roiled in her as she gripped the sash.  So that was what they thought of her.  Clever.  Contriving.  Conveniently amoral.

The full weight of the situation bore down on her.  She was a woman whose behavior had left room for assumption.  A woman with no man to “protect” her.  A woman who could be acquired, used, and discarded like a pair of outmoded trousers.  Her insignificant life could be turned upside down without a second thought, should she fail to cooperate.  To accept such conditions would mean that she would be the one to pay for the prince’s pleasures. . . with a lifetime of marital servitude.

All because the prince fancied her.

Eyes burning, she turned to look at them.  The baron sat with his arms crossed and St. Lawrence toyed with a tea cup from the tray.  Neither seemed at all chagrinned by the demands they placed on her.

Then it occurred to her in a stroke: if she couldn’t find a husband, the prince might be forced to call off the notion of bedding her.

“I fear, gentlemen, we are at an impasse.  I know of no man willing to marry me and then loan me out for a spell to the Prince of Wales.”

“I expect that is true.”  The baron’s composure bordered on the smug.  “We, on the other hand, know quite a few.”

She was stunned.  In the silence that followed, she realized that there was still more to come.  With each new requirement they had slowly painted her into a corner.

“As we have said, the prince is generous,” the baron continued.  “There are numerous men of his acquaintance who would be willing to do him just such a favor.”

“And what sort of men would they be?  Barking madmen?  Wastrels?  Misers who would sell their grandmothers for a profit?”

“I assure you, madam” –the baron rose, looking as sincere as a weasel can look— “the men on St. Lawrence’s list are gentlemen, one and all.”

She looked to Nimble Jack, who pulled an envelope from his inner breast pocket and laid it on the tea table beside her china cups.  The cad!  He had arrived that morning with a list of agreeable cuckolds in his pocket!

“You came prepared,” she said, struggling with rising outrage.

“The prince surrounds himself with resourceful men,” Jack said.

“Resourceful,” she echoed.  So that was how the wretch saw himself.

She turned back to the window and clamped her arms around her waist.  The prince had a whole kingdom of “resourceful” men to see to his welfare.  She, on the other hand, had no one.  No parents, no brothers or sisters, no uncles or aunts to intervene on her behalf.  That was how she had fallen into the squire’s hands in the first place.  The magistrate overseeing the sale of her deceased father’s property had insisted that as a girl alone, marriage was her only option.  And as it happened, his friend Squire Eller was in need of a wife.  In the end, she was just one more asset the judge dispersed to men whose good will would ease his own way in life.

But she was not that nave little seventeen year old girl anymore.  She had learned the ways of the world and the men who ran it.  The years of hard work since her husband died had stunted her reactions, dulled her responses.  But no longer.  Resourceful?  She’d show the wretches resourceful.

She’d find a way to get out of this intolerable fix or die trying! 

“No matter what you think of me, gentlemen, the prince’s proposal is shocking to a woman of my background and experience.  Make no mistake, I would not consider accepting overtures from a married man, even those of His Highness the Prince of Wales, if I had a gracious way of declining them.   

“I must, however, demand a choice in those small matters which are of interest to no one but myself.  The prince may be my friend and supporter for a few months or even a year or two, but I will remain wedded to this ‘husband’ for the rest of my days.  Therefore, I insist upon the right to choose the man I will marry.”  She pointed to the envelope.  “I cannot continue unless I am assured that I may reject those men with impunity.”

The baron looked anxiously to St. Lawrence, who frowned at this new wrinkle and studied her openly.

“And if you refuse all of the men on this list, what then?” he asked.

“We must have some assurance,” the baron said, mopping his lip again, “that you will show good faith in seeking a husband elsewhere.”

“I give you my word, sir, that I will.  If that is not enough, then you must return to the prince and explain to him your predicament: that you do not believe the woman he selected as a mistress is worthy of your trust.”

There was an awkward silence as they grappled with her demand.

“A time limit, then,” the baron said, proposing a compromise.  “Say, a fortnight.  You must pledge to find and accept a husband within a fortnight.”

She looked from one man to the other, turning it over in her mind.

“I think two weeks should be sufficient."

"Excellent.The baron’s smile was full of relief as he rose and reached for her hand.  “I’ll be off, then, to deliver the good news to the prince.  St. Lawrence here will see to the details.  He has access to funds and the special license and will ensure that you have whatever clothing and incidentals you desire.”  There was a hint of challenge in his tone. 

“He will see to it that you are wedded within the agreed-upon time.”

* * *

Jack watched with an unsettled expression masking pure inner turmoil as the baron took his leave. 

Damn and blast Marchant, saddling him with marrying off Mariah Eller!  He had agreed to compile a list of suggestions for men she could marry when it became clear that the prince was determined to go through with this idiocy, but he never imagined it would come to this.

She’d already declared her opposition to the whole notion.  What in hell made Marchant think she would actually do the deed?  When he looked back at Mariah, she was settling at the table and reaching for the teapot.  He sat down opposite her, gripping his knees under the table cloth.

After pouring in silence and serving him, she reached for the envelope on the table and opened it to peruse the names inside with a frown.

“So, you’re to be both minder and matchmaker.”  She didn’t look up.

“And you’re to be cooperative.”  He sipped his tea, wishing to hell it was Scotch whiskey.

End excerpt from Make Me Yours

Available everywhere books are sold July 1, 2009

Opening pages from Chapter One of The Book of True Desires:

Copyright 2006 by Betina Krahn
All rights reserved.
Jove Books are published by the Berkley Publishing Group a division of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc.     

 -- ONE --
January 1898
Tampa, Florida

     The old boys tucked into rocking chairs on the veranda of the exclusive Tampa Bay Hotel inhaled some of their gin-and-tonics as she walked by.  Coughing ensued.  Nurses hovered. Spectacles were donned.
     She was tall enough to be called statuesque, with extravagant curves barely contained by a tailored silk dress with a square neckline that bared enough to make the viewer wish it bared more.  She moved effortlessly down the colonnade, seeming to float above the polished floorboards while she collected the attention of every eye not yet clouded by cataracts and every libido not yet surrendered to age or infirmity.
     She seemed to have escaped from Charles Dana Gibbon's sketchbook, and it was little wonder,  Her bountiful chestnut hair was a single pin away from falling into glorious dishabille . . . her long-wasted gown emphasized the provocative S curve at the small of her back . . . the creamy perfection of her skin was enhanced by a dark ribbon bearing a cameo at her throat.  Gibson's celebrated talents could only have captured her in two dimensions and it was as clear as the winter sky that she was all but bursting the bounds of three. 
When she neared the end of the veranda she slowed, glanced from the corner of her eye at the row of robber barons she just passed, and then paused by a table on which a chessboard was spread between Samuel P. "Hardacre" Blackburn and his long-time rival J. P. "Cash" Morgan.  She positioned herself at Samuel P.'s side and scrutinized the chessboard with a gaze as cool and clear as Baltic amber.
     "Do you mind?"  she asked Hardacre, gesturing to the game board.
     "Be my guest."  He waved permission and leaned back in his chair.
     Nothing on the veranda stirred--not a breeze--not a wheeze--and she took up his play and moved three chess pieces in as many turns before straightening.
     Cash Morgan stared at the board in disbelief and Hardacre chuckled and leaned forward to study her victory and then to raise his scrutiny to her.  To his surprise, she returned his inspection, her vivid eyes roaming him with a thoroughness that would have been an outrage coming from any other woman.
     Clearly, she had come to conquer.
     "You play well, madam."
     "Well enough it would seem," she responded with a lilt.  He tossed the lap blanket aside and grabbed his cane to rise, but she waved him to keep his seat and gave him a potent smile.
     "Care to give me a game yourself, Mr. Blackburn?"
     All around him Hardacre heard gasps.  Nurses down the way lurched to feel for pulses.  He glanced at his fellow moguls from the corner of his eye and was gratified to see they were impressed by her interest in him.
     She had indeed come to conquer.
     And he was going to let her.
     For now.
     "I would be honored, madam," he said.  "If my esteemed opponent will--oh, just get the hell up, Cash, and give the gal your seat."
     She was soon perched on the edge of Cash's vacated rocker, studying Hardacre even as she studied the chessboard.  As they played, her hand movements were like a ballet; quick, sure, and oddly entrancing.  Hardacre had difficulty keeping his mind on the game.  It took her only nine moves to bring him to the same ignominious conclusion:  "Checkmate."
     His face reddened as he looked up.
     "Anything else I can do for you?"  he asked with a hint of pique.
     "As a matter of fact, there is.  You can join me for dinner tonight.  Seven o'clock.  In the dinning room."
     He sat for a moment, unsettled by her consummate self-assurance.  He glanced down the row of old men.  She had chosen him.  How could he refuse?
     "Be pleased to do so," --he nodded gravely-- "Miss? Mrs.?"
     "Miss.  O'Keefe."
     "Until seven, Miss O'Keefe."
     Having gotten what she came for, she rose and made her way at the same unhurried pace back down the veranda into the Great Hall of the hotel.  As she passed the rows of rocking chairs, sunlight filtering though the gingerbread carvings on the veranda arches ignited fires in her hair and set her cinnabar-colored silk shimmering like hot Northern Lights.
     No pale, society-grade bit of femininity there, Hardacre Blackburn thought to himself.  This was one for the ages.  Magnificent.  A full-blooded, one-of-a-kind, knows-her-own-mind, lives-on-her-own-terms woman.
     The instant she disappeared from sight, the old boys around him cackled and crowed.
     "Ain't set eyes on a female that frisky since Lillie Langtry," toothless old Sledge Hammermill declared.
     "Watch yer wallet, Hardacre.  You can bet she is."  Cash Morgan advised, still stinging from his defeat at her hands.
     "Try the milk before you buy the cow Hardacre," Bottomline Vanderbilt called before a fit of coughing overtook him.
     Hardacre ignored their comments as he hobbled down the veranda with a smugness undiminished by the pain in his gout-ridden foot.  He still possessed a remnant of the robust figure he had enjoyed for most of his seventy-two years.  He had a full head of white hair, brows like steel wool, a ruddy complexion, and a pair of flinty gray eyes that were apt to throw sparks as the blast furnaces of Pennsylvania where his considerable fortune had been made.  The faces of the old boys registered a grudging admiration for his unexpected good fortune.
     That admiration, tinged as it was with jealousy, made the ordeal of walking all the way to his suite almost bearable for him.
     As he moved through the Great Hall and entered the motorized elevator, he kept recalling that luxurious chestnut hair, that alabaster skin, and those eyes like lucid amber.
     As spectacular as the young woman was and as flattered as he was to be the recipient of her invitation, he knew there was more to it.  A good bit more.  And damned if he wasn't going to enjoy finding out what it was.
     "Goodnight!"  he roared as he burst through the doors of his suite on the fourth floor, minutes later.
     A tall, cutaway-clad form carrying a handful of suspenders appeared in the doorway between the parlor and the bed chamber.
     The old man took in the Brit's stiff back and flared nostrils.  Damned limey still refused to call him "sir."
     "Draw me a soak and lay out my best evening clothes."  He tossed his cane on the settee and rubbed his hands together before easing down on the upholstery beside the walking stick.  "I'm having dinner tonight with the most beautiful woman on the goddamned continent."
     Goodnight took in the news, then turned on his heels to retreat to the bathing chamber, muttering.
     "Poor creature.  Must have the worst eyesight on the continent, as well."                

End excerpt from The Book Of True Desires

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