Today on First Kiss Friday, it is my pleasure to welcome Jessica Cale and her characters from Artemis in the Bluestocking Belles’ holiday box set Holly and Hopeful Hearts. Let me also just say that this story is brilliant and had me hooked from the very first page! You’re going to love it, along with this excerpt. Enjoy!
“Charlotte?” Apollo’s voice was a temperate breeze in the chill of the night. He had been so kind to her. She wanted to be his countess, wanted to be the kind of wife she believed he deserved, but knew in her heart she couldn’t. She hated to prevent him from finding such a paragon, but she couldn’t cheat her child of the chance at a good life, either. She could not protect them both. When she turned to face Apollo, there were tears of frustration in her eyes.
He gathered her in his arms and held her close without a word, and a pathetic-sounding sob broke free from her throat at the surprise. Aside from dancing, he’d barely touched her. She surrendered to it, cautiously wrapping her arms around his long, lean waist. His shirt was stiff with starch beneath her cheek and the delicious smell of him drove all thought from her mind. His cologne was light and vaguely herbal, like elderflowers and lemon in brandy. Masculine, but not overtly so. It mixed with his own chemistry and became something more, the smell of desire itself. It would be so easy to love him, but she knew she would be doing him a disservice.
He loosed his hold on her only enough to seek her gaze with heavy-lidded eyes blue as medicine bottles. “What troubles you?”
She glanced over his shoulder to be sure they were alone. “I don’t belong here.”
“You belong with me.” His assurance was heady as laudanum and twice as tempting. She longed to drink his words and forget.
“You deserve better,” she said, looking away. “I can’t be everything you need.” She pulled out of his arms reluctantly and sunk onto a bench overlooking a fallow field.
He sat beside her without a sound. “You already are.”
Her laugh was defensive and more than a little morose. “The things I’ve done, Apollo…”
He took her hand, offering her his strength. “I don’t care, Charlotte.”
“You ought to,” she fired back, but did not withdraw her hand from his grasp. “It wasn’t just Marksby. Perhaps you’ve heard the rumors. If you haven’t, you will. Byron, Coleridge, Kean, dozens of others. Opium, laudanum, absinthe, women.” Her voice cracked.
His eyebrows shot up at her confession. “Women?”
She cringed inwardly. Her past had succeeded in shocking him where her behavior had failed. “Many,” she confessed. “So many. What must you think of me?”
He wrenched his gaze away, appearing to consider something. Having second thoughts, like as not. She couldn’t blame him.
Her hands shook as she tried to explain herself. He had been lovely to her and the last thing she wanted was to hurt him. “If I may be candid, I’ve come to care for you a great deal and that is the reason I cannot let you marry someone like me. You ought to find yourself a real lady with whom to acquire a child or two.”
“And you?” His face looked stricken as he turned to her, his high cheeks streaked with red. “You will miss your lovers?” he asked without a hint of judgement or scorn.
Her chest shook with unshed tears in time with the shaking of her hands. “I do not want you to think for a moment my reluctance stems from any defect on your part. It is rather the contrary. We will never be equals, and I cannot allow myself to believe you could ever truly return the feelings I have for you.”
He opened his mouth to speak, clearly miffed.
“Forgive me, I did not mean to cause you embarrassment,” she said. “What I am failing to articulate is this: you need a lady deserving of your kindness, someone from your world. I do not belong here.”
“I daresay I know a thing or two about not belonging.” He let out a long breath. “Charlotte, I adore you. I don’t want someone from this world, I want you. You have brought a light into my life I thought was extinguished forever. Don’t leave me.”
As if she could. The moonlight in his eyes inspired a kind of madness in her, and her gaze dropped again to his lips as he implored her, “Don’t go.”
If his eyes were the ocean, his voice was the undertow, drawing her into the unknown. She drifted into him like a ship lost at sea, helpless against his pull, until she felt his face against hers. Her cheek connected with his lean jaw and she could smell the elderflower on his throat. His pulse echoed in her ear, or perhaps it was her own.
Because she might never get another chance, she touched her lips to his.
He let her.
It was strange and marvelous, kissing someone for the first time. The surprise at the new sensation gave way to a restless eagerness to taste and know through touch. The greater significance of the moment was lost to details like the way his nose touched her cheek and the feel of his breath on her lips.
He cradled her face in his hand as he returned her kiss, his mouth remarkably soft for something that looked so sculpted. Like the man himself, his kiss was achingly sensual; there was nothing Charlotte could do but submit. Emboldened by her involuntary moan, he deepened the kiss, tasting her so thoroughly she felt dizzy.
Coming up for air, he rested his forehead against hers. She took his face in her hands, caressing the blade of his cheeks and the plane of his jaw. His eyelashes tickled her face as he closed his eyes, relaxing into her hands.
In all her years, she had never been kissed like that. A heady mix of desire, devotion, and natural skill, it was more than a kiss, it was love itself.
Jessica Cale is the award-winning author of the historical romance series, The Southwark Saga. Originally from Minnesota, she lived in Wales for several years where she earned a BA in History and an MFA in Creative Writing while climbing castles and photographing mines for history magazines. She kidnapped (“married” her very own British prince (close enough) and is enjoying her happily ever after with him in North Carolina. Visit her history blog at www.dirtysexyhistory.com.
ABOUT HOLLY AND HOPEFUL HEARTS
When the Duchess of Haverford sends out invitations to a Yuletide house party and a New Year’s Eve ball at her country estate, Hollystone Hall, those who respond know that Her Grace intends to raise money for her favorite cause and promote whatever marriages she can. Eight assorted heroes and heroines set out with their pocketbooks firmly clutched and hearts in protective custody. Or are they?
A Suitable Husband, by Jude Knight
As the Duchess of Haverford’s companion, Cedrica Grenford is not treated as a poor relation and is encouraged to mingle with Her Grace’s guests. Surely she can find a suitable husband amongst the gentlemen gathered for the duchess’s house party. Above stairs or possibly below.
Valuing Vanessa, by Susana Ellis
Facing a dim future as a spinster under her mother’s thumb, Vanessa Sedgely makes a practical decision to attach an amiable gentleman who will not try to rule her life.
A Kiss for Charity, by Sherry Ewing
Young widow Grace, Lady de Courtenay, has no idea how a close encounter with a rake at a masquerade ball would make her yearn for love again. Can she learn to forgive Lord Nicholas Lacey and set aside their differences to let love into her heart?
Artemis, by Jessica Cale
Actress Charlotte Halfpenny is in trouble. Pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and out of a job, Charlotte faces eviction two weeks before Christmas. When the reclusive Earl of Somerton makes her an outrageous offer, she has no choice but to accept. Could he be the man of her dreams, or is the nightmare just beginning?
The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, by Jude Knight
James must marry to please his grandfather, the duke, and to win social acceptance for himself and his father’s other foreign-born children. But only Lady Sophia Belvoir makes his heart sing, and to win her he must invite himself to spend Christmas at the home of his father’s greatest enemy.
Christmas Kisses, by Nicole Zoltack
Louisa Wycliff, Dowager Countess of Exeter wants only for her darling daughter, Anna, to find a man she can love and marry. Appallingly, Anna has her sights on a scoundrel of a duke who chases after every skirt he sees. Anna truly thinks the dashing duke cares for her, but her mother has her doubts.
An Open Heart, by Caroline Warfield
Esther Baumann longs for a loving husband who will help her create a home where they will teach their children to value the traditions of their people, but she wants a man who is also open to new ideas and happy to make friends outside their narrow circle. Is it so unreasonable to ask for toe curling passion as well?
Dashing Through the Snow, by Amy Rose Bennett
Headstrong bluestocking, Miss Kate Woodville, never thought her Christmas would be spent racing across England with a viscount hell-bent on vengeance. She certainly never expected to find love…
Holly and Hopeful Hearts is a Bluestocking Belles Collection available for pre-order at $2.99 and will be released November 8, 2016. 25% of the sales benefit the Belles’ mutual charity the Malala Fund.