Absolute Surrender, Jenn LeBlanc’s second novel, is officially released today! I feel a special attachment to this story because I watched the creative process unfold, watched Jenn as the story took over and began to go in directions she hadn’t planned (as stories often do). She wrote part of it in a hotel room we shared on a writing retreat, and we wrote together a few times in coffee shops.
The story is not like most romances you’ve read. For starters, it’s illustrated. Yes, it has photographs. Sexy photographs. Jenn is an award-winning journalist, in addition to being a talented author, and she put those photographic talents to use shooting photos of key scenes in the story just as she did for The Rake and the Recluse, her first book, the original Illustrated Romance.™
More than that, the story itself defies conventions. As you can see from the luscious cover (which features the sexy cast you’ll see inside), there are two heroes. Yes, it’s a menáge story. But it’s not erotica. It’s romance.
If that’s not enough, the heroine is afflicted by a condition that in her time in history could easily have landed her in that dread institution Bedlam. Fortunately for her, she holds the hearts of two men who will stop at nothing to win her — and to protect her secret.
Here’s the book’s blurb:
Happiness was always too much for Lady Amelia to hope for.
Now all she expects is to secure her future and marry Charles, Duke of Castleberry, as arranged. But Amelia has a dangerous secret that could not only destroy her in Charles's eyes and the eyes of society, but could also very well condemn her to Bedlam.
Baron Endsleigh, Amelia’s oldest friend, has other ideas. Ender has loved Amelia all his life. He knows her secrets, and they don’t frighten him. He plans to come between Amelia and Charles in any way he can to prevent the marriage and finally claim Amelia for his own. Though her father forbade the match years ago, Ender is determined to have her as his wife and nothing can stop him. Not even a duke as powerful as Castleberry.
That duke has hated Baron Endsleigh and wanted Amelia for, what seems to him, forever. Charles will stop at nothing to make her his, and his alone, even if that means destroying the one thing he knows she loves most in this world—Endsleigh.
Will Amelia be able to choose when one man speaks to her head and the other her heart?
None of them will find happiness until they all three learn to embrace absolute surrender.
You can get the book online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Kobo. Or head to Jenn’s website to buy it in trade paperback.
PLEASE remember to leave some way for me to reach you! You can't win a prize if I can’t get hold of you!
Also, Jenn is giving away a Nook and a $25 B&N gift card to one randomly chosen reader who reviews ABSOLUTE SURRENDER. Enter your review links here:
And now as an extra treat, here’s an excerpt from the novel courtesy of the lovely author.
Amelia stood. It was the simplest explanation, really. She did nothing else. Her back straight, her hands held gently—not too tight—just below her waist. Her reticule dangled from one wrist, resting just behind her hands. Her skirt did not sway—as she did not twitch.
The room was full.
Nobody looked her way.
She corrected the angle of her chin because it had been too severe. She lowered her chin slightly and tilted her head gently to the left to balance the flowers in her hair because her girl had angled them to the right.
She smiled gently—there’s that word again—and shook her head. Gently, she thought. Gentlygentlygently. Amelia’s shoulders drooped at the thought, so she lifted and rolled them back gently—no, unnoticeably. Yes, I rolled them unnoticeably, not gently. Well…gently as well, but more unnoticeably than gently. Or perhaps so gently as to be unnoticed? Perhaps that’s it.
Amelia wished she knew what was wrong with her. If she could give a name to this malady, perhaps it would lose its power over her.
That’s a ridiculous thought. The fact was, to give it a name would be to give it more power—to the people who would diagnose her, to those who would judge her, to the doctors, physicians and others who would determine she was unhealthy, unworthy…unwell. Power to those who would then control her future, and that of her entire family with her. Giving a name to her illness was an impossibility. She had to remain hidden.
“Amelia.” Her name rolled across her senses like a heavy fog. He should not be using my common name. I am not common. He is not common. It is not done. What if...what if someone hears?
“You,” she whispered, and Amelia’s eyes darted to and fro to ensure their conversation was private as he reached for her hand. “Endsleigh,” she said just a bit louder to deflect any complaints that she’d not responded to his greeting. That would be improper, unheard of. A terrible cut.
Amelia looked down. Hugh had her hand, and her heart skipped a beat as her breath increased as if to make up for it. It was her right hand that he held, as is proper, and her reticule hung straight down. It did not catch on her gloved hand or her gown. She’d chosen this particular reticule because once she’d chosen one with cute little baubles and shiny beads and the beads and baubles had snagged her gown and—
“Might I have the honor of this dance, my lady?” Hugh interrupted the train wreck of her thoughts.
Amelia’s eyes widened as she shook her head quickly to bring herself back to the ballroom, to the man, to the hand on her hand—certainly for an inappropriate amount of time by now. But his hand was warm and as he tightened his grip...she could breathe.
Hugh waited more patiently than he ought. He was regal in his black and white, his broad shoulders enhanced by the stark lines. Amelia took another breath. It was a concerted effort until—cinnamon and rich cigar, perhaps a hint of brandy—the knot in her belly loosened just a touch. She looked up to the all-too-familiar whiskey-colored eyes and forced a smile. “Yes, my lord, yes. The honor.”
Amelia’s hand slipped from his, and her breath caught. Her eyes drifted as she checked the ballroom to see who was watching, but the answer was more simple than “who.” The answer was everyone, and she knew it before she looked, as well as she knew the chill on her skin was caused by the trickle of sweat rolling slowly down her spine, pausing every so often like a tease as the bead of sweat rounded a small bone then continued on its merry way.
She looked past him to see that the eyes of the ton were on her, but were not yet narrowed.
Hugh took her hand, this time her left, which was good, because her left hand was rather cold and the other was a bit warm now. The warmth of his hand on her hand—or rather my hand in his warm hand—called her back to the ballroom.
“Bollocks.” Amelia’s eyes went wide as she heard the word come from her mouth so softly she could only hope it made it just as far as her own ears. But when she heard Hugh clear his throat—more loudly than was seemly—she knew that was not to be.
He smiled at her gently—yes, gently, it had to be gently—as he turned her and rested his hand, his other hand—that first warm hand—on her back. Very low on her back. The heat sank through the layers of her gown and stays and underthings and straight through her skin to her soul.
As much as her pulse raced, her body softened, sinking into the safety of his embrace. Warmth. Security. It rankled at times that her body calmed to him even when her mind wished to revolt. If she could have been constrained beyond the boundaries of her corset, she might have been okay—but that was not within the realm of possibility here in this room.
Amelia shivered. Logically, she knew she wasn’t cold, because the room was brimming with bodies. Bodies with eyes and opinions and all of them on me. Breathe. Damn you, she thought, then twitched and sent the thought from her head. She glanced up from below her eyelashes to see if he’d noticed, and he had—of course he had. How could he not, after all? His hands are on me—they are ON me. Breathe. Damn me!
She twitched again and his fingers tensed as his hands relaxed. Odd that—that his hand could attempt to let go as his fingers tensed to...to what? She knew she shouldn’t be seen dancing with him. Not tonight, of all nights, because Charles was here. Somewhere.
She needed to get away, before Charles saw her dancing with Hugh. She looked up again, and her eyes went wide as they caught Hugh’s. Then his eyes narrowed. Oh…oh no.
Hugh knew without doubt she was preparing to bolt like a spring lamb—awkwardly and without proper balance—and yet he was not prepared to let her get out of this as easily as with an inopportune and well-placed twitch. She was not going to run from the room. For one, he was bigger than she.
Hugh relaxed incrementally, lulling her, letting her believe he was unaware of her intention.
Damn me. His grip tightened, and he pulled her toward him through the corner—a warning of sorts.
“Amelia...” he managed through a clenched jaw. What he wished to say was, Do not make me regret this. But that would have been too harsh, too much for her delicate state to handle at the moment.
They sailed down the far side of the ballroom, his arms so tense he knew they would cramp that night. Hugh worked toward relaxing his features—at the very least. Because were this to be effective, he had to appear happy to be pulling her through the turns. Hugh had to give her the restraint she required, without providing a show for the ton gossips to flourish on.
Damn me twice. Why? Hugh watched the emotions fade and pulse across her features like so many birds flocking from a predator.
Damn me twofold.
God in heaven.
The song ended.
Hugh tightened his hand on hers—we are not yet finished here—then turned them toward the balcony bordering the ballroom over the gardens. Hugh shook his head to stay her and moved her hand to his elbow but did not release his grip.
“You’ve no idea the effect you have, do you?” Amelia said nearly sotto voce, her smile solidly in place. “You’ve no idea the power you wield so easily.”
Hugh grunted, then checked to make sure the sound was not so loud as to draw more attention, and politely raised his hand to clear his throat. Again. Certainly tomorrow he would receive all manner of gifts and cards to usher a speedy recovery from whatever malady they believed him to have—if they only knew.
In fact, he was aware of his “power,” as she chose to call it. But his heart rent to see her in these situations, where she could so easily be ruined for all the world. It was a very precarious position. In the wrong hands, she could easily end up in Bedlam, never to return to the world. Her mother didn’t understand, and her father…well. He believed the duke was either entirely too ill to notice much beyond himself, or much too calculating to care what would happen to his daughter, who was currently charged with securing her own future and that of her mother. Hugh thought it terribly cruel, but it was the way of the world. There was nothing to be done about it. Her illness was not compatible with the pressure of the ton.
If only to satisfy her, he kicked up a smile on one side and knew the minute she saw it—because she twitched.
The strange thing was that no thought had come before the twitch, as was common. Hugh’s hand tightened on hers as he handed her through the narrow doorway to the balcony, then followed without letting go. If she could just breathe.
Damn me twice. But his hands are on me. On me, touching me, on me.
Her arm jerked and managed to dislodge him, and she turned, her eyes wide. This was her chance to run. She shifted left, only to find the outside wall of the ballroom, and when she looked right, the high balustrade blocked her, the rest of the space taken by that giant ominous beast of a man who insisted on rescuing her.
Damn him again. She huffed and stomped her foot. “Must you be so pervasive? Must you be so insistent? And why?” she whispered viciously to the floor before he could answer, as her eyes shifted around the balcony.
She knew he smiled.
Damn him twice.
She turned away from him toward the gardens, watching the moonlight paint the ground with patterns from the oldest trees in the county. She’d no idea how long she stood there before the air shifted behind her, and his hand brushed her neck.
The anger left her then like a muddied body diving into a clear blue lake—a cleansing. She closed her eyes. “Hugh.” But his name sounded more like “you” on a breath. She absorbed the calming effect of his very presence. Why do I fight this?
“Yes, Amelia mine, none other than I. I only wish to help. You can put an end to my incessant pestering with one word. Should you choose to.”
Amelia could feel the words as he spoke against her neck, then the absence of heat when he stepped back. When she turned, he was gone, as though he’d never been there.
Perhaps just a memory.
A powerful sob threatened to rend her stays, and she squeezed herself tightly as though to prevent herself from falling into a million tiny pieces on the balcony. The truth was, she couldn’t give him the word he wanted. She loved him, true, but her father would never agree to a match with a mere baron, particularly a baron with no income to speak of—no matter her dire circumstance.
“Ma Belle!” her mother shrilled. “You should not be out here alone.”
Amelia turned to see her overbright mother traipsing toward her with the air of grace and the intent of mastery. No wonder Hugh had disappeared so quickly.
“Yes, Mother.” Improper, improper, improper. How many noticed, how many wondered, how many remarked that he left me here?
“Back inside now,” her mother singsonged with saccharine sweetness in her fading French accent. “They’re waiting for you to return. Where is that smile?”
Amelia looked down and pulled from the depths of her toes the most brilliant smile possible, then strode lightly back toward the ballroom.
Hugh watched as Amelia stepped through the narrow door, and her very skin reacted, tightening as though she’d walked through a cloud. He saw her joints stiffen slightly, her fingers curl around her reticule, her chin rise just a touch. His head moved back and forth, not enough for a shake but plenty enough to show discontent.
Hugh could see her awareness of him ease her, relax the muscles between the blades of her shoulders. She dropped them slightly and allowed herself to float across the room, away from him and toward the man who would be her husband.
Damn me forever.
He turned to leave and nearly ran down a young lady.
“No, my lord, I’m entirely at fault,” the girl said. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen and in her first, possibly second, season. He noticed a woman watching them to his left. The Countess Rigsby. Hugh was never one for the young chits put out every year because he preferred women with some experience, some…seasoning. He closed his eyes and groaned inwardly so as not to further fluster the child before him. He took her hand, as she’d been placed in his path, and bowed over it.
“The Lord Endsleigh, at your service.”
She curtsied. “Thank you, my lord, I am Miss Rigsby,” she replied with a shy smile.
He released her hand and took a step back. He considered her. As the charge of the Countess Rigsby, this could be nothing but trouble, particularly as it seemed she wasn’t merely a charge, but a relation. Lady Rigsby was a gossip of the worst sort and tended to trap gentlemen into marriages for her daughters, nieces—anyone put in her charge. And many girls had been placed in her care for the season, because she was ever so successful. Hugh found it the worst sort of irony that her family tended to produce naught but girls, and by the lot of them as well.
“Miss…Maitland Rigsby?” he asked carefully. Her eyes widened, and she nodded stiffly. He closed his eyes momentarily to consider his next step, because he knew, now, who she was—and just how delicate. He determined the best course of action was to remove himself, as expediently as possible.
“It has been delightful to make your acquaintance. However, I was just on my way—”
“Why, Lord Endsleigh, I wasn’t aware you’d been made known to my niece,” Lady Rigsby said from behind him. Her tenor rankled, and he squared his shoulders.
“We had not, previously, been introduced, no, but we managed well enough after I nearly tripped over her,” he said, perhaps not as politely as he should have, as Lady Rigsby rounded him to stand next to the girl. She shied, and his heart sank. Hugh wasn’t sure whether it was a game meant to pull at his honor, or whether the girl was as much a victim of her aunt as the lady obviously hoped he would be. “She’s a delightful young lady, however. You should be proud,” Hugh said more politely. He was rather proud at just how politely, considering.
“Well, perhaps a dance? Miss Rigsby is quite popular this evening, but I’m sure she has one dance available…for you.” Lady Rigsby’s smile was toxic as it sank past his guard.
Hugh was not about to be trapped, but he didn’t wish to damage this girl in public with a refusal. He also knew the kind of gossip this woman could start, and he certainly didn’t need an enemy in her, particularly with Amelia in such a precarious position. A fact he was certain the lady was full aware of.
Hugh nodded stiffly as he watched Amelia remove from the ballroom on the arm of her duke. If only he’d been paying more attention, he could easily have avoided this and been gone by now. Instead, he took Miss Rigsby’s hand and led her to the dance floor.
Amelia knew the moment Hugh quit watching because her skin tightened. This is not going to end well. She closed her eyes but for a moment, then lifted her chin defiantly to greet her intended. She could not give a thought to her friend, the boy she grew up with, the man who would forever hold her secrets. The sole light in her darkness.
It was wholly inappropriate, a man other than her husband privy to her innermost thoughts. Her body—no, but that’s not what theirs was about, was it? Was it? Was it? Amelia closed her eyes. She needed to concentrate and, as if to remind her, she received a sharp jab to the rib.
“Amelia Marie!” her mother whispered. The woman’s face did not shift, as though no word had been spoken. Her mother didn’t seem to understand that her idea of handling the “situation” was about the least helpful thing of all.
Amelia widened her eyes to fend off the tears, and when they glistened, she hoped Charles would think it from happiness. She saw him then, through the crowd, speaking with the inimitable Duke of Pembroke-by-the-Sea. Her father.
If he’d not been born a duke, we might have been happy, Amelia thought.
Amelia shook off that thought as her mother clucked her tongue. She’d not seen Charles in nearly a year, but it seemed that this had been the year when everything had changed about him. He was more than recognizable, even though he was no longer the shy boy she remembered from their youth.
Charles turned toward her, his blue eyes searching the room, she knew for her. When he found her, his eyes smiled. Remarkable, that, as his mouth never moved. A full head taller than the whole of the ballroom, Charles was not merely a presence now, but a reckoning.
He’d grown into the gangly limbs that seemed to be more of a hindrance than help when trying to keep up with her and Hugh at Pembroke. Charles’s appearance seemed at odds with the overly agreeable personality she remembered, and yet she could tell by the look in his eyes now that to misjudge him would mean a quick end.
Jackson and Endsleigh. Jacks and Ender. Charles and Hugh. Hugh had always been the light to her darkness, even outwardly, Hugh was the light and Charles the dark. Charles’s liquid brown eyes, Hugh’s bright as the sea. Charles’s deep, thick hair, and Hugh’s longer sun-kissed blonde. It was nearly humorous, the differences between the two.
She always wanted to reach first for Charles’s smooth hair, but she simply could not, of course. She felt the want in the tingle in her fingers, an itch she could not quite scratch. She wanted to touch, to feel, to explore Charles. Whereas Hugh, she wanted to laugh with, chase, sink into.
Her father took her hand, and the contact startled her. She hadn’t realized she was already here in the circle, because her mind, as it did, had wandered. She looked down to her father and softened instantly. He seemed so small in his wheelchair, a rug across his knees to prevent a chill to his worn bones.
His eyebrows pinched ever so slightly. “My dear, might I present the Duke of Castleberry. Of course you know of him.” He turned to Charles, eyebrows raised with a smile.
And of course she did, of course she knew him. Or, more specifically, knew of him, because she didn’t know this Charles, the one who now towered over her, the one who seemed to look straight through her. But she wanted to. This night had been planned, set up and determined for years now, and all that time she had done nothing but look forward to the reality of it. Now that it was upon her, she was frightened.
Charles nodded easily, his eyes never shifting from her. “My lady, it’s an honor.”
Amelia’s heart trembled at the deep baritone of his voice—something she didn’t remember—and she brought her hand to him slowly. Charles took that hand and bowed over it quickly. Her other hand pressed to her belly, attempting to constrain the loose feeling that once again threatened to spill.
“Your Grace.” She smiled when the title sounded strange on her tongue. He’d grown into, and inherited, his title, but all she could see was Jacks, the awkward boy who’d followed her around during those young summers. “I’m certain the honor is mine,” she added as joyfully and as full of smiles as she could muster, curtsying slowly, gracefully, carefully. “I was sorry to hear of your mother.” From the corner of her eye, she saw her own mother’s eyes widen and her smile freeze.
Charles released Amelia’s hand and stepped back. As was proper. Not because of her statement, she was sure. He could not be seen to be standing too closely, that was all. Charles was nothing if not full of graciousness and propriety.
“Thank you.” His voice was nearly a whisper.
The strain of music picked up yet again, and her mother bumped her elbow. “Your Grace, I believe my daughter has been saving this next dance for you.” Amelia thought her mother’s smile was bound to cleave her face clean in two, rather saw it happening, and Amelia’s eyes strained as she stared, expectantly, for the first crack.
Charles turned to her mother quickly, drawing all attention with him, as Earth to the sun, his smile tight. If for no other reason, Amelia decided then, she could love him because he measured the intent of her mother rather quickly.
“Perhaps some refreshment and a turn around the room, my lady?” Charles turned back to her, bringing her gaze with him. “I find I’m not much for dancing this evening.”
“By all means, Your Grace, as you please.” She smiled as she hazarded a glance at her mother—who was actively suppressing a frown. Because, of course, a dance with a duke—and not just any duke but the Duke of Castleberry—would solidify her position. Not a soul would dare speak out about her after that—but a turn around the ballroom would have to do...for now.
Beyond being taken with his future bride—if he could call her that—he was absolutely intrigued. Charles knew beyond reason that if he were to wed her, his life would be more interesting.
Charles remembered all too well the girl he first met so many years ago. Full of spit and vinegar and laughter. He could not quite reconcile that with the woman she’d grown into, the one the ladies of the ton whispered of behind their fans. But that was of little concern to him. Ton gossip was old hat, something he’d never bothered with. Charles could see the movements, the odd-placed tics, and could not quite figure why she shivered often, but her actions called to an extreme sense of protection.
Stunning as she was, he knew she believed herself to be unworthy of the attentions paid and, in some sense, she was. The only true attention received from the ton was a great disdain for her awkwardness and a jealousy that, due to her position, they could not, under any circumstance, call attention to it. Instead, they waited, they stared, they laughed privately, and they said to themselves what not a single one of them dared to utter aloud—not even to their closest confidants—but they all knew: She was strange.
Regardless of her delicate nose, her bow-shaped mouth, and her viridescent eyes. Irrelevant that she had the most vibrant smile and impossibly bright and luminescent hair that he wanted spilling across his hands. Inconsequential that he had been in want of her since the first moment he’d drawn breath in her presence more than ten years past—beautiful, exciting, laughing and playful.
Pointless that he saw these things above all else. Because he knew that she could not yet trust him. Not a stone’s throw, not a toe. She trusted Ender. That much was obvious from the dance they’d already shared tonight. That much was obvious from the summers he’d spent attempting to keep pace with them. That much was obvious from the times Ender had been allowed in her presence—and Charles had not.
That much was obvious from the paste smile she had carefully set upon her lips now. Charles shifted uncomfortably.
“Your Grace, are you well?” she asked quietly, so no one would hear. She might make the perfect duchess at that. She was so very aware of her surroundings and propriety, always watching, always aware, always a paradigm. Charles frowned, and her hand tensed against his arm, and he wondered what all this caution cost her.
“I have always been well when with you. It’s been so very long since we’ve had a chance to speak, and this is not the time nor place for great discussions, is it? Yet there are so many great discussions I wish to have with you,” Charles said.
They passed the Duke and Duchess of Roxleigh, and he nodded in deference and received a welcoming smile from Her Grace. They were so different from the general ton, it gave him hope for the possibilities it presented. Roxleigh answered to no one but the queen.
Amelia shivered, recapturing his attention instantly, and he schooled his reaction. Ever wary in public he must be with this masterful beauty. Ever concerned that his reaction would call her out.
Charles’s position being what it was, if he were to respond badly, the ton would follow without heed. He would be the gate to which the flood would flow, and he felt that certain pressure keenly on his shoulders. He didn’t wish to ruin her, regardless the outcome of their suit. He cared for her, whatever that meant. Well, if he was being honest with himself, what it was was an insuppressible want of her…but that he’d wanted for so long, he believed he might have a genuine care for her as well. Charles turned for the balcony. “Perhaps some air.”
“As you please,” she said.
Charles followed, properly keeping well in sight of the ballroom, then stayed himself when she released him, walking toward the balustrade.
“Endsleigh,” was all he said. Charles couldn’t help himself. He watched as she controlled her reactions incrementally, like a sudden freeze, starting with her ears and traveling down. He saw every muscle stop, coming to attention. It was a rather beautiful dance beneath her skin and caused his fingers to itch, the physical manifestation of a wish to touch.
“Endsleigh,” she replied with a catch in her voice. “My oldest friend.”
“Dearest?” he asked, wanting to know, truly.
“Perhaps.” She turned toward the sleeping gardens, resting her gloved hands on the marble barrier. “Out there, at the far side of England, away from society, the only friends we have are those born to us.” She smiled back at him, over her shoulder.
“I imagine. And beyond that?” he replied, perhaps hopefully, needing to know how close they truly were. He had a deep need to posses her body, certainly, though more than that he wasn’t sure he was capable of. Regardless, if she were his, he would expect every bit of her to belong to him, without exception. Body and soul.
“Beyond that, there can be nothing,” she said simply. She lifted one shoulder, a concession, yet not enough to allay his fears.
“He’s always been allowed in your life, while I have not been. Until now,” Charles said.
“All true, and yet—”
“And yet?” he asked.
“And yet…” Amelia’s voice faded as she turned, and he saw in her eyes the request…no, the defiant demand that he quit this line.
For a man to sigh called thoughts of weakness, for men were never to question their thoughts, their wishes. But sigh he did, and he put his whole heart into it.
“As you please,” he responded.
Her perfect smile returned. Charles was taken away at how well she did that, effected that persona. Created that incredible wash of calm while he could feel, even at this distance, that she was falling apart from the inside.
Now that he looked closely he could see those little shivers, jerks, and ticks that never quite went away, were never quite hidden.
They both looked out over the gardens. Shoulder to shoulder—she with her hands held perfectly in front of her, he with his clasped tightly behind his back—as the moonlight drifted down upon them like a spotlight in the vast darkness.
Charles was not quite as good at schooling his physical features. But then he never had cause to be. He was not nearly as practiced with controlling something so seemingly uncontrollable as she. His control at this point was simply his nature. All emotion had been schooled out of him as unacceptable, and truth be told, he’d never been witness to, or party to, anything like love. Though he thought it must be kin to joy…and that he had witnessed. In her. Charles shook his head and wished...what did he wish? He wished he knew what it was she needed to keep herself together.
“Amelia, I love…I love—”
Charles stopped abruptly when her eyes widened. His father had always told him that women wanted to hear they were loved, that he should wield those three words like a weapon.
“I love…pudding.” What the hell?
But when she laughed in answer to the statement…he realized he would have done it again for that moment. Pudding, for fuck’s sake. He wished he knew what it would take to bring that joyful girl from the sea back to him in a more permanent fashion.
Like an unwelcome voice in his head, the name intruded.
To banish Ender from thought would be his greatest wish, but Ender’s effect on her could not be banished. Charles had watched that dance. He’d seen her standing. Just standing. Attempting to simply stand. Then Ender was there, and she had spiraled up and then back, like a top would. Tightened then released, all that difficulty gone. There was something more between them. Charles had always known that, but what he could not understand was why. When they were younger, Ender had been allowed to be there with her, no matter what. Whenever it seemed she was acting out of sorts, they had removed Charles and let Ender stay.
This was without a doubt a level of jealousy he had no wish to control. And yet…and yet, to have that same power for her—but he feared that level of concern came from a level of connection that was beyond his ability. Charles shifted again, looked at the leather toe of his shoe as he tapped it quietly, once, twice, a third time. Once they wed, her friendship with Ender would be officially at an end, and all this maundering would have no consequence. She would be forced to his confidence. What would have consequence was if she were unsuitable.
Charles knew she had this magic inside her. To find that again…no. He wanted her. She was the only person he’d met in his life who had been so open, so free. Everyone else in his life spoke to the Duke of Castleberry, but she always spoke to Jacks, and he wanted her to speak to Charles. She was never put off by his title, didn’t want him for it. Somehow, she saw the boy and the man. That intrigued him.
“It is odd, is it not? The last time we spoke, you were merely Amelia, and I was merely Jacks,” he said wistfully.
She smiled then, and it was genuine, and he could not help but return it with the knowledge that that girl, the one from before, was still in there. Charles took her hand and smoothed a circle into her palm with his thumb, dropping her mouth open slightly until he could see the pink of her tongue.
“Mon Dieu,” he whispered on a breath. Her jaw snapped shut. “Malheureusement.” he said. Charles swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, his tongue swollen inside. “Pardon me.” He cleared his throat and dropped her hand. “I believe I’ve had quite enough of this function. I shall return you to...to your—” Charles coughed in an attempt to vanquish the image of that perfect pink tongue from his mind. It didn’t work, so he closed his eyes as he continued. “Your family. Perhaps I could call on the morrow to take you for a ride in my carriage? I hear the Royal Gardens are beautiful at the moment,” he said distractedly. “Something to be seen. Perhaps then we could attempt the first of many great discussions.”
“As you please,” she whispered.
If only...he thought. Charles reached for her hand carefully, then, quite without his permission, his hand landed gently on her shoulder and dragged slowly down her bare skin to the top of her glove, catching on the edge, then continuing until he had her hand.
“And what would you wish, Amelia?” He was rewarded with another perfect view of that pink tongue as her mouth dropped open to answer him, but all he was given was a quick breath. He placed her hand on his arm, and her other hand pushed at her belly, as though she would be ill.
“Do you need a moment?”
Amelia shook her head. “No, thank you, I simply need to…” She looked up into his eyes and seemed to press that hand harder into her stomach. Her eyes showed pain, and he was truly at a loss as how to proceed.
“Amelia, if I have offended—”
She shook her head adamantly. “Please do call on the morrow. For tonight, I feel I’m overtired. The trip from Pembroke...” She waved her free hand in a circle, as if to say etc....
Charles nodded, but knew an excuse when he heard one. Tonight was merely a beginning, the first opening of the window. He held her hand to his arm and brought her through the crowd, willing some of his strength to her. He thought she needed it much more than he at the moment.
All too aware of her physical proximity, he led her through the jostling throng to her waiting mother. He handed her off and turned to the duke. This man he needed to watch. Charles’s own father had told him to be wary of Pembroke but never did elaborate as to why. Charles knew peers used different tactics to attempt to control those around them—it was one of the most important lessons from his father. Control was important, lack of such could destroy a dynasty. As such, whatever control Pembroke had, whatever tactics he used to maintain it Charles would need to determine as they moved forward.
“Pembroke, with your leave I would very much like to call upon Lady Amelia on the morrow.”
“By all means, sir. By all means. We shall arrange to have a chaperone availed to you,” her father replied.
Charles turned to Amelia and took her hand once again. He bowed over it stiffly, nodded to her mother and took his leave.
It was then she breathed.
“I do hope you did not ruin this,” her mother mumbled through a stiff grin.
Amelia’s hands tensed, one on the other.
“I’m quite sure nothing is ruined, Your Grace. You heard yourself he’s to call tomorrow. As for now, I’m to Pembroke House. I see no further use for me here.”
“Now, my dear,” her father started, “you should not manage your mother so. You know she only wishes the best for you.”
“By all means necessary, only the very best,” Amelia said a bit too loudly and with an irrepressible smile.
Amelia turned and made her way to the front of the house. So very close now, within reach, a stone’s throw, so simple. Her arms snaked around her middle. Safety beyond those two great doors and then home to peace, within and without. Amelia’s heart raced her feet to the threshold.
Away from here, away from these people, away from everything she hated—everything she was born to be. Everything. This was everything to everyone. Everyone but her. Her everything had already quit the ball, as she did now.
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