The Marquis and the Vixen
The Culpepper Misses, #2
Formerly titled Blythe: Schemes Gone Amiss
The only thing more passionate than their differences is their chemistry…
There is nothing Blythe Culpepper wants less than a Season in London. Except Lord Leventhrope. She definitely wants nothing to do with that odious (and admittedly handsome) man. So, imagine her dismay when she’s saddled with both…
Tristan has no interest in social gatherings. Which is why he’s as surprised as everyone else when he agrees to help present the Culpeppers to Society. If only he could determine why the sharp-tongued Blythe captivates him like no other…
Tristan and Blythe soon learn there’s nothing like a little forced proximity—and a deadly enemy—to help a pair of polar opposites see what they truly mean to each other. But is happily ever after in the cards for this tormented marquis and the vivacious vixen of his dreams?
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“Collette Cameron delivers a delightful adventure with this lovely Regency romance…darn near impossible to top!” ★★★★★ ~Night Owl Reviews Top Pick
“A brilliant novel and a must read for any love of Regency romance.” ★★★★★ ~The Romance Reviews Top Pick
“. . . another sweet and romantic historical Regency with splashes of humor throughout! A definite 5 Stars Read!” ★★★★★ ~Teatime and Books Reviews
“. . . a delightful story from bestselling author Collette Cameron. It’s witty and funny with a tasteful steam level! From the very first line I was drawn into the story… Seriously, it would be impossible to giggle at the line “GOOSE-BUTT FEATHERS!” This book is a breath of fresh air!” ★★★★★ ~Dotty
“Another hit by the extremely talented Collette Cameron that will have you laughing & crying all at the same time. Her wit combined with the strength of her characters will draw you in & not let you go. Looking forward to her next installment to see which Culpepper Miss has me laughing out loud.” ★★★★★ ~Dee Foster
“Collette Cameron creates the most enduring characters and always gives us another book to find out more about their lives. This is a beautiful story about two people drawn to each other but seemingly kept apart by circumstances beyond their control. The author manages the tension beautifully. Highly recommend this series.” ★★★★★ ~Rella
“Good story line and development of characters! Definitely would share this series and author with others! Great author to follow!” ★★★★★ ~Midnight Reader
“Collette Cameron is a master a creating memorable characters. The situations and scrapes they find themselves in are nothing short of genius.” ★★★★★ ~Simatsu
“Oooohhh. This was a delicious novel and I ate it up in one sitting. I just loved the main character Blythe Culpepper, she is such a spitfire and says what she means.” ★★★★★ ~Chatty
“. . . an extremely solid and compelling story. . . . And let’s not forget Ms. Cameron’s luminous, eloquent and precise prose, and the delightful and witty dialogues. . . .an enchanting romance, with charismatic characters, and epic turns of event.” ★★★★★ ~Monique
“. . . wonderful historical .. . with complex, engaging characters. The dialogues are crisp and entertaining, while being true to the period as well. I highly recommend this book and look forward to the next installments in the series.” ★★★★★ ~Jen Craig
“Flimflam and goose-butt feathers! What an absolutely unforgettable novel. This is regency romance at its finest. The setting comes to life under Cameron’s talented pen. She weaves a world steeped in the past, taking readers back in time to experience the lives of her characters for a short while. The plot was intriguing and realistic.” ★★★★★ ~Jonel
Chapter One Excerpt
London, England, Late May, 1822
Flimflam and goose-butt feathers!
One hand hiding her mouth, Blythe Culpepper gaped as she trailed her cousin, Brooke, and Brooke’s husband, Heath, the Earl of Ravensdale, into the mansion.
Surely that wasn’t authentic gold gilding the ornate cornices? Squinting to see better, she surveyed the grand entrance. Yes. It is.
And not just the sculpted cornices either. The plasterwork and practically every other surface, excluding the coffered ceiling’s elaborate paintings and the rose-tinted marble floor, boasted the shiny adornment.
Everything pink and gold and glittery. And costly.
“What a despicable waste of money.” Flinging Heath a hasty glance, Blythe checked her muttering. It wouldn’t do to offend him or their hostess within a minute of arrival.
The peeress, swathed in gold satin and dripping in diamonds—three diamond bracelets? On each wrist?—stood beside an enormous urn. Blythe fought the scowl tugging at her mouth and brows. Disgusting, this brazen flaunting of wealth.
Clamping her slack mouth closed, she reluctantly passed a waiting footman her silk wrap. A chill shook her, puckering her flesh from forearms to shoulders. Maddening nerves. She hadn’t expected the pomp, or the mob’s crush, to affect her.
A simple teardrop-shaped beryl pendant nestled at the juncture of her breasts, and Blythe pressed a hand to the expanse of flesh exposed above her wide, square neckline. Did she dare tug the bodice higher? After dressing, she’d attempted to, but the fabric had remained stubbornly form-fitting, the slopes of her bosoms pushed skyward for the world to ogle at their leisure.
Repressing a scornful grunt, she tipped her mouth a fraction. In twenty years, the smallish, twin pillows had never garnered much ogling. Probably little need to fret in that regard.
Tripping over her gown remained an entirely different matter.
Her secondhand garments had always been too short for her tall frame. Since exiting the carriage, this ball gown—its sheer silk overdress atop the yellow jonquil swirling about her feet—had become snared thrice upon her slippers’ decorated tops.
She would have to endure these outings for the remainder of the Season, and she didn’t relish sprawling, bum upward, before the ton’s denizens. Tapping her fan against her thigh, she estimated how many public jaunts the Season might entail and hid an unladylike groan behind an indelicate cough.
God spare her.
The instant the final dance note faded, she planned on trotting back to the country’s quiet civility—to the humble, familiar way of life she preferred. Or perhaps she’d contrive a minor scandal. Nothing too ruinous, merely shameful enough to see her banished in moderate disgrace.
Yes, that might do.
This gaudy, glistening parade quite shred her normally robust nerves. A calculated, hasty departure might be just the thing. After all, she hadn’t come to London to marry. Acquiring a husband ranked below cleaning the chamber pots and mucking the stalls on her to-do list. Unless, of course, she found a man who adored her the way Heath cherished Brooke.
Fanciful imagining, that. Stuff and nonsense. Fairy-tales. At least for Blythe.
According to Mama, even as a toddler, Blythe had possessed a determined—some might say daunting—personality. Now, as an adult, the unfeminine characteristic chaffed men’s arses and patience raw. No one who knew her had ever used acquiescent and her name in the same sentence, and she wouldn’t scheme to snare a husband with false biddableness.
Humbly accepting the dowry Heath had bestowed upon her hadn’t made the prospect of wedding more tempting, and though grateful for his generosity, she couldn’t expect him to provide for her indefinitely. In a month, she’d be of age and free to make her own decisions, which included returning to Culpepper Park and the new house Brooke had commissioned.
Somehow, Blythe would eke out an existence there. A slight shudder rippled the length of her spine. No more giving music lessons though. At least not to spoilt brattlings like the vicar’s daughters. For five interminable years, she’d endured that trial.
With a determined tilt of her head, she sucked in a calming breath and returned Heath’s encouraging smile.
He and Brooke preceded Blythe and her cousin, Brette, into the immense entry. Blythe’s twin sisters, Blaire and Blaike, slowly wandered in wearing identical wide-eyed, stunned expressions.
Taking in the ostentatious manor, and the more flamboyant assemblage, Blythe craned her neck, catching her toe on Brooke’s slipper. “Excuse me.”
Perchance as boggled by the crass display of wealth, Brooke didn’t respond, just slowly swung head this way and that.
Beneath the glaring candlelight of two eight-foot chandeliers, Blythe blinked again, as did her sisters and cousins—five flaxen-haired, gawping country bumpkins brought to Town.
Who could blame them?
They’d been accustomed to starkness, want, and poverty, and the grandiose entry sparkled like the Pharaoh’s tomb she’d once seen in a drawing.
The urge to hike her gown to her knees and bolt to the carriage’s safe and anonymous confines—like the fairytale character Cendrillon—had Blythe grasping her frothy skirt with both hands, one white-satin-slippered foot half-raised.
Whose beef-witted idea had it been to introduce the Culpeppers to society?
Heath’s. Their proxy fairy godmother. He believed it might prove amusing.
Her fan clutched in one hand—too bad it wasn’t a magical wand with mythical powers—Blythe surreptitiously lifted her gown a fraction and disentangled her slipper’s beaded toe from her hem again. At this rate, she’d make a spectacle of herself before she’d stepped onto the dance floor, the singular thing she hadn’t dreaded. Musically inclined her whole life, the prospect of dancing didn’t worry her. Much.
Their ensemble had drawn considerable attention already, some speculation less than affable from the barbed stares and pouting moues slung their way, and tonight’s introduction to la beau monde was important to Brooke’s and the other girls’ success.
None of the Culpeppers had relished visiting London, but these past weeks had changed everyone’s minds, excluding Blythe’s. The streets boasted refuse and manure, and the city stank worse than the dairy barns during summer’s peak temperatures. Beggars and orphans abounded, as did women of loose virtue. The stark contrast between the opulent display currently surrounding her and the hollow-eyed, rag-garbed street urchins she’d seen on the drive here grated.
Grossly unfair, the patent disparity.
Perhaps enduring years of hunger and lack had embittered her toward the affluent more than she’d realized.
“Look at the cherubs and nymphs.” Her voice low and lilting with amused embarrassment, Brette elbowed Blythe. “They’re everywhere and completely naked.”
They were indeed.
As the majordomo announced their troupe in an onerous monotone, Blythe answered the smile of a striking man, who dipped his curly, sun-kissed head at her. Broad-shouldered, with a sculpted face, and attired in the height of fashion, he was quite the handsomest man she’d ever seen.
Merriment lit his features, and his smile blossomed into a satisfied grin. His fawn-colored gaze lazily traveled from her insignificant bosoms to her toes then made the reverse journey to once again hover on her breasts before boldly meeting her eyes. His pleated at the corners again, a testament to a man accustomed to smiling habitually.
Her stomach reacted most peculiarly, all floppy and churning.
And her breasts?
Why, under his appreciative regard, the dratted insignificant things swelled and pebbled proudly. Quite forward of them, given their unimpressive size. Warmth skidded up the angles of her cheeks, and she averted her gaze.
First time she’d ever blushed or had her bosoms betray her. Next thing she knew, the perky pair would scramble from her bodice’s lace edge and wave a jaunty hello.
Her cousin edged nearer and splayed her fan, concealing their lower faces. She bobbed her fair head to indicate the ballroom entrance where a crowd spilled forth, perusing and prattling about the newcomers. “Look, Blythe. The statues on either side of those double doors are too.”
“Are what?” What was Brette yammering about? Oh. Naked. The statues of Greek gods were naked as a needle. “Must be why those silly girls are giggling and pointing.”
Raised on a farm, Blaike smirked and Blaire grinned, their pansy-blue eyes twinkling. The male anatomy didn’t intrigue them quite as singularly as it obviously did the sheltered society misses. Nonetheless, the statues’ manly endowments left nothing to the imagination.
Well, one remained endowed.
The other’s male bits had snapped off in a debutante’s hand, causing another round of frenetic tittering. From the way their scolding hostess descended upon the women, Blythe would have bet her pendant the god had lost his penis to curious groping before.
“Thought you might need a hand, Ravensdale.” A mocking male addressed Heath from over Blythe’s right shoulder.
Blythe stiffened, refusing to look behind her.
The rumbling baritone could belong to only one man. The insufferable Marquis of Leventhorpe.
Her first foray into High Society, and he attended the same gathering, his presence as welcome as a crotchety, old tabby cat. He’d rubbed her wrong, and they’d crossed words, ever since meeting at Esherton Green, her childhood home. A more arrogant, difficult … humorless … stubborn person than Lord Leventhorpe didn’t strut the Earth.
His scent, crisp linen mixed with sandalwood, enveloped her, warning her he’d drawn nearer. Too near. His breath tickled her ear as he mumbled almost inaudibly, “Your mouth was hanging open like a pelican’s. Again.”
She pressed her lips together and steadfastly disregarded the distracting jolt his closeness and warm breath caused. He’d startled her. Nothing else.
What’s a blasted pelican?
Something with a vast mouth, no doubt, but dancing naked atop hot coals was preferable to asking the behemoth to explain.
“What a rag-mannered boor you are to mention it, my lord.” Speaking under her breath and from the side of her mouth, she commanded her lips to curve congenially while examining her family and mentally cursing him to Hades.
For once, no one noticed their verbal sparring.
Looming several inches above her, Lord Leventhorpe’s chest—a thick, wide wall of virile maleness—blocked her view. Tempted to shift away, she forced her feet to stay planted. He was the largest man she’d ever met, and as one of Heath’s closest friends, she must learn to tolerate Lord Leventhorpe’s intimidating presence. Surely sainthood and a seat at the Lord’s Table awaited her if she managed the Herculean task.
The auburn-haired devil enjoyed provoking her, and like a nincompoop, she regularly succumbed to his goading. She normally possessed a level head, and that he should be the person to have her at sixes and sevens, exasperated her.
A growl of frustration formed in her throat, and she clenched her teeth and hands.
“Ravensdale, you have your hands full.” Leventhorpe skirted her, giving a cynical twist of his shapely lips as he passed. “I would deem it the ultimate privilege to assist you with these exquisite ladies.”
She didn’t believe his sycophantic posturing for an instant. At Esherton, when he’d accused the Culpeppers of abducting Heath, she’d seen the real Lord Leventhorpe, and this fawning deference concealed a stone-hearted, grim-tempered cawker.
His penetrating gaze—as heated and blue as a cloudless noonday sky in August—probed hers as if he strove to read her mind and emotions. Most disconcerting, and none of his blasted business. Maddening how he scrambled her thoughts and agitated feelings she couldn’t decipher.
A spurt of amusement lit his eyes, and she narrowed hers.
Stop staring, you oversized, handsome baboon.
Immediately, Lord Leventhorpe’s expression became shuttered and inscrutable. He rubbed the side of his nose and canvassed the entry before offering an enigmatic half-smile. “If you need help escorting the ladies, Hawksworth and I would be honored to assist.”
“Reverend Hawksworth is here too?” Blythe peered over her shoulder.
Yes, indeed. Grinning, Reverend Hawksworth wended his way through the throng.
Charming, witty, and the perfect gentleman, he rivaled the fair god who’d smiled at her earlier. She slanted Lord Leventhorpe a contemplative glance. How could such two startlingly dissimilar men—one angelic and one demonic—be Heath’s closest friends?
Brette perked up, her cheeks pinkening and eyes sparkling when the cleric joined them. At Esherton Green, Blythe had suspected her cousin’s interest in Reverend Hawksworth, and Brette’s reaction tonight confirmed it.
Chuckling, he cut his jungle-eyed gaze to the gawkers surging from the ballroom. “I do believe a near insurrection is at hand. Arriving with five incomparables is hardly fair play, Raven. I expect histrionics, swooning, and apoplexy in record numbers this evening. Perchance a bit of fervent, and not altogether hallowed, petitioning of the Almighty as well.”
Nodding at something the butler said, Heath grinned. “Ah, I never intended fair play. I would wager from the reaction I’m seeing, the ton will never be the same. What say you, Withers?”
“Indeed not, my lord.” Something on the room’s far side gripped the butler’s attention, and his mouth tipped lower as his brows scaled the distance to his receding hairline.
A giggling young lady held the statue’s appendage in the air, swinging it back and forth. Their ruddy-faced hostess, Lady Kattenby, tried to extricate herself from the oblivious dame grasping her arm.
Blaire and Blaike giggled until Brooke hushed them with a severe look. “Girls, unseemly behavior isn’t humorous, and dangling that most certainly is not funny.”
Actually, it rather was.
As were the guests’ faces, especially the women, most of whom made no effort to avert their rapt gazes from the display.
“I beg your pardon, my lord.” Withers gave Heath a brief bow. “I must see to Apollo’s ill-used … er … limb at once.”
Blythe hid a grin behind her fan.
Lord Leventhorpe, Heath, and Reverend Hawksworth burst out laughing.
“A limb’s an exaggeration in my estimation.” Heath’s shoulders shook again.
Brooke tapped his arm with her fan. “Hush, darling. Remember the girls.”
Withers marched to the ballroom’s entrance and, after retrieving the length of marble, rather than discreetly concealing it in his fist or tucking it into his tailcoat pocket, reverently laid the member atop his flattened palm and strode to an abashed footman.
Gingerly taking the stone between his gloved forefinger and thumb, the mortified servant hustled from the entry, his ears tinged scarlet at the sniggering in his wake.
To stifle the laugh burbling behind her teeth, Blythe bit her lip.
“That’s not something you see every day.” A grin flashing in his eyes, the reverend extended his elbows to her and Brette.
A most unconventional man of God, to be sure. If Blythe recalled correctly, the vocation hadn’t been his choosing. Something to do with the previous vicar, an uncle, eloping with a nun. Quite a scandal ensued.
“Shall we?” Reverend Hawksworth canted his head. “There mightn’t be seats left. The benches and chairs tend to fill rather quickly, and there is quite a crush this evening.”
Blythe released a relieved huff. Lord Leventhorpe wouldn’t be her escort into the ballroom. She’d spent a lifetime wrangling her temper and unruly tongue into submission. Yet, thirty seconds with that abominable wretch shriveled her self-control to a puff of dust, and she became a razor-tongued shrew.
Lord Leventhorpe’s impressive brows dove together and twitched before he resumed his normal austere mien and politely bent his arms for Blaire and Blaike.
What went on in that head of his?
Never mind. Blythe truly didn’t want to know.
“Ladies, allow me to claim the first two sets, please.” Reverend Hawksworth chatted amiably as he guided them to the only remaining seats, a partially occupied bench. He dashed Blythe a contrite smile. “And, Miss Brette, may I request the supper dance, as well?”
Ah, he returned Brette’s regard. Her cousin would search far for a man as worthy as the handsome rector.
When Brette didn’t immediately respond, Blythe slid her a questioning glance.
“Reverend, to be honest, I’m not sure what’s acceptable. Perhaps we should wait until we are seated so that Heath or Brooke may advise me?” Brette procured a hesitant smile. “If they agree, I would enjoy a dance with you.”
Strange. Why the reticence? True, Brette fretted about stirring a dust up, but Reverend Hawksworth obviously intrigued her.
Reverend Hawksworth’s brows elevated several inches as he peered at the others trailing them through the horde. “I don’t recall the last time I saw dancers missing steps to gawk at new arrivals.” He gave a bemused shake of his head. “But then, I don’t attend many gatherings. I only did tonight because Raven asked Leventhorpe and me to be on hand. Truthfully, I’m surprised Leventhorpe agreed. He loathes large gatherings and comes to Town during the Season for Parliament, not for the socializing.”
Perhaps Blythe would be spared Lord Leventhorpe’s company more than she had anticipated, if he didn’t care for crowds.
Reverend Hawksworth gave Brette a conspiratorial half-wink. “I do believe your brother-in-law finally realized the furor introducing five diamonds of the first water would cause. Never been done before, that I’m aware.”
The Adonis from the entry fell into step beside Blythe, and her stomach did that weird, quivery thing again. He was even more appealing than she’d first believed, and his eyes weren’t brown at all, rather an unusual topaz with dark green flecks. A deep earthy tone circled his irises, explaining why his eyes appeared brown from a distance.
He flashed a rakish smile, revealing well-tended teeth.
Splendid. She couldn’t abide poor hygiene.
“Hawksworth, I beg you. Introduce me to these charming ladies, so I might claim a dance with each.” Though the Adonis included Brette in his appeal, his gaze never left Blythe, and the curving of his lips caused another unfamiliar jolt.
The reverend shook his head. “Too late, Burlington. I’ve already requested sets and the supper dance with Miss Brette.” He slightly raised the arm her fingers lay upon. “And Ravensdale ought to make the introductions, not me.”
Burlington—was he a mister? A Lord? Something else?—wrinkled his forehead in mock horror. “Troublesome etiquette rules.” His brandy-tinted gaze sought Blythe’s. “If Ravensdale agrees, would you favor me with the supper dance?”
A trifle forward, but …
“I would like that.” No feigning diffidence. He was an attractive man, and he’d captured her interest in the entry, something unanticipated, truth to tell. “I must confess, I don’t claim a substantial appetite.”
For years, the Culpeppers had survived on insufficient food, and although they had plenty to eat now, she couldn’t manage generous portions. Given her height, she doubted she’d ever possess an enticingly rounded figure like the young ladies occupying the bench farther along. The figures of the older women with them had evolved into rotundness—not something Blythe worried about.
Once the rest of their group made it to the bench—Leventhorpe, a dark, menacing deity dwarfing everyone, his keen, raptor gaze combing the ballroom—Heath made quick work of the introductions.
Blythe’s admirer was Mr. Courtland Burlington, the second son of the Earl of Lauderdale. No title, therefore no worries about a lowly gentlewoman aiming her sights too high.
Not that she’d set her cap for Mr. Burlington. Much too soon for that. This was her first assembly, after all. Nonetheless, he presented quite a dashing figure and, given the envious looks regularly flitting in his direction, much sought after by females.
“I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Culpepper.” Mr. Burlington lifted her hand as he bowed, kissing the air above her fingers. A stickler for propriety or affecting courtly conduct? Would he mind awfully that she found decorum about as useful as a well-gnawed chicken bone?
Blythe half-anticipated a frisson or tremor to skitter along her spine as had occurred at Leventhorpe’s touch, but Mr. Burlington’s fingers pressing hers elicited nothing more thrilling than a mild, pleasant warmth.
Must have been nerves or repugnance that had induced her strong reaction to the cold marquis.
The plainer young lady of the nearby quartet grinned and waved, and Lord Leventhorpe responded with a cordial nod and a warm upturn of his mouth, earning him satisfied smiles from her companions before he angled away.
“My cousin, Francine Simmons, and her friends,” he said to no one in particular, though his attention remained upon Blythe as she extricated her hand from Mr. Burlington’s.
Miss Simmons leaned close, speaking to the sable-haired beauty beside her. The pretty girl’s expression hardened, and she and the older dames—relatives, judging by the strong familial resemblance—pelted the Culpeppers with reproachful, gray-eyed glares.
As Blythe and the others conversed, the foursome brazenly eavesdropped, frequently dipping their heads together and whispering. A gentleman claimed the lovely girl for the next dance, and Miss Simmons, her shoulders slumped and countenance dejected, plucked the bench’s braid edging, wistfully contemplating the dancers.
Prodding Blaike’s side, Blaire whispered, “Look there.”
“Good heavens.” Blaike stared pointedly at two men striding their way.
“Hush,” Brooke gently chastised behind her fan. “Whispering is vulgar and unkind. You are neither.”
“Ravensdale.” Hand extended, a man wearing army crimson, and bearing a fresh pinkish scar along his left cheek, approached their group accompanied by a—for lack of a better description—buccaneer.
Sporting a neat beard, and his ebony, shoulder-length hair tied with a black ribbon, the man appeared to have stepped straight off the deck of a privateer. Blythe expected to see a parade of barefoot, cutlass-bearing pirates behind him.
Heath, Lord Leventhorpe, and Reverend Hawksworth broke into exuberant grins. After much hearty handshaking, shoulder slapping, and laughing, Heath introduced the newcomers. The officer was Lieutenant Julian Drake, and the sharp-eyed, swarthy fellow, Oliver Whitehouse, captain of the Sea Gypsy.
Ah, a sea captain. And he appeared part gypsy too.
“Looks more like a pirate to me,” Blaike murmured to her entranced twin.
Captain Whitehouse leveled her an indecipherable look. He’d heard her. Nonetheless, bold interest shone in his obsidian eyes.
“How fare you, my friend?” He touched Leventhorpe’s arm and jutted his strong chin to indicate the other men. “It’s been a good while since we gathered in one place.”
Another attractive gentleman approached, his nose flattened peculiarly. He reeked of rosewater, and from his togs and elevated chin, Blythe would eat gravel if he wasn’t a peer.
Every man’s visage grew guarded, except Mr. Burlington’s, and Lord Leventhorpe and Captain Whitehouse exchanged a speaking glance.
The newcomer’s oily gaze slid over Blythe then her sisters and cousins, before lighting upon Lord Leventhorpe and turning antagonistic. “Yes. We haven’t all been together since Leventhorpe shattered my nose in an unfair fight.”