How to Woo a Reluctant Lady
From The Hellions of Halstead Hall
How to Woo a Reluctant Lady
And who better to play the part of Minerva’s would-be husband than wild barrister Giles Masters, the very inspiration for the handsome spy in the popular gothic novels she writes? The memory of his passionate kiss on her nineteenth birthday has lingered with Minerva, though she has no intention of falling for such a rakehell, much less marrying him!
Little does she know, Giles really is a covert government operative. When the two team up to investigate the mystery behind her parents’ deaths, their fake betrothal leads to red-hot desire. Then Minerva discovers Giles’s secret double life, and he must use all the cunning tricks of his trade to find his way back to her heart.
New York Times bestselling author Sabrina Jeffries delights readers yet again with the third novel in her Hellions of Hallstead Hall series, featuring the independent Lady Minerva Sharpe and the reckless Giles Masters.
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
- #4 and 6 on the New York Times
- #22, 34 and 84 on USA Today
- #4 and 7 on Publishers Weekly
- #5 on Borders Mass Market
- #1 on Borders Romance List
- #7 on Barnes and Noble Paperback Bestseller’s List
Romantic Times 2011 Best Historical Novel: Historical Love & Laughter Nominee
Starred Review: “Quick pacing, witty dialogue, and charmingly original characters set Jeffries’s books apart, and this one is sure to please old fans and make plenty of new ones as well.” —Publishers Weekly
Starred Review: “Jeffries’ third captivating Hellions of Halstead Hall book has the fast-paced sensuality, delicious humor and marvelous storytelling that are the author’s trademarks. It is a delight to find strong-willed Lady Minerva tangled in love’s knots with a man who is simply perfect. It’s a tale to thoroughly relish.” —Library Journal
“Vastly appealing characters, witty badinage, and a lively sense of fun make this a delightful read and a welcome installment in Jeffries’s latest series.” —Romantic Times
To Giles Masters’s great surprise, Lady Minerva Sharpe burst into laughter. “You? As my husband? Are you out of your mind?”
He hadn’t expected wild enthusiasm, but incredulity wasn’t what he’d been aiming for either. “Quite possibly.”
It was the God’s honest truth. He’d spent the entire journey over here rehearsing what he would say, how he would approach Minerva, how he could intimidate her into stopping this nonsense of putting him in her books. Then he’d come upon the gates of Halstead and seen the crowds of prospective suitors there to answer her advertisement for a husband. That’s when it had dawned on him that the best solution was the simplest.
Make her his wife. That way he could control her and her … “fiction.” She would never damage her own husband’s future—she was too practical for that. And she had to marry anyway if she—and her siblings—were to gain their inheritance.
A few years ago, the idea of marrying Minerva might have thrown him into a bachelor panic, but with the upturn in his career, he was beginning to realize that he would have to settle down with a wife soon, especially if he became King’s Counsel.
And if he must have a wife, it might as well be one he desired. Minerva certainly qualified, no matter how she tried to hide her allure with her attire. Today she wore a fashionable morning gown of printed green muslin with a number of fussy flounces about the hem, those hideous puffy sleeves that had become so popular, and a bodice that ran right up to her chin.
Every feminine curve had been buried beneath furbelows and padded sleeves and lace edgings, and it didn’t matter one whit. He already knew that her figure was lushly feminine. Thanks to the many evening gowns he’d seen her in, he could imagine it as clearly as if she were naked. And just the thought of taking her to bed made his blood quicken and his good sense vanish. Truth was, she did something extraordinary to him every time he saw her.
But God help him if she ever guessed it. Reading her books had offered him a peek inside her fathomless brain, so he knew she was clever enough to wrap him entirely about her finger if he ever allowed it.
“As if I would marry a scoundrel like you,” she informed him with a minxish look that grated on his nerves. “Are you daft?”
“I believe we’ve already established that I’m halfway to being a Bedlamite. But humor me, anyway.” Apparently she wasn’t clever enough to see that marriage to him was her only viable choice. He would have to correct that. “You ought to leap at the chance to marry a scoundrel, given how much you enjoy writing about them.”
She eyed him as if he really were a bedlamite. “It’s not the same. You make an excellent villain in my books, Mr. Masters, precisely because you would make a wretched husband. You don’t fit any of my criteria for a suitable spouse.”
“Criteria? Ah yes, the interviewing. You must have drummed up some questions for your prospective spouses.” He glanced about the room and spotted a stack of paper atop a red lacquered table. As he strode over, he asked, “Is this them?”
When he picked up the sheaf of paper, she hurried over.
“Give me that!”
He held her off with one hand while he scanned the first page with the other. “Let me see …. Ah, yes. Question One: ‘Have you ever been married before?’ That one’s easy. No.”
“Because no woman would have you,” she said dryly.
“That probably had something to do with it. Question Two: ‘Describe your ideal wife.’” He let his gaze trail leisurely over Minerva. “About five foot seven, golden brown hair, green eyes, with a bosom that would make a man weep and a bottom that—”
“Giles!” she protested, hot color filling her cheeks as she crossed her arms over that bosom.
At least she wasn’t calling him Mr. Masters anymore. He grinned. “Suffice it to say, she’s quite beautiful.”
The brief satisfaction in her eyes told him that Minerva wasn’t as immune to feminine vanity as she liked to imply. “I wasn’t speaking of physical appearances, as I’m sure you know. I wanted a description of their ideal wife’s character.”
“I see. Well then, my ideal wife is an unpredictable hellion, with a penchant for getting into trouble and speaking her mind.”
“Sounds dangerous.” Her lips twitched. “And utterly unsuitable for a man who likes to keep secrets.”
“Good point.” Except that her unsuitability was precisely the thing that intrigued him. She was wrong for him in every way. And that only made him want her more.
Besides, he could handle Minerva. He was probably the only man in England who could.
He tore his gaze from hers to read on. “‘Question Three: What domestic duties will you expect your wife to perform?’” He laughed. “What sort of answer are you looking for? Some indication of the frequency with which your applicant would wish you to share his bed? Or a description of the acts he would wish you to ‘perform’?”
She blushed so prettily that he wished he could fix the image forever in his mind. “That is not the sort of duties I meant, and you know it.”
“It’s the only sort of duty that matters to those louts out there,” he said coldly. “Since they intend to hire plenty of servants with your fortune, they need only focus on the essentials of having a wife. For them, those essentials are obvious.”
“But not for you? You haven’t answered the question, after all.”
“Whatever your ‘domestic duties,’ I’m sure you can handle them.”
She glared at him. “It’s whether I want to that’s in question.”
Leaving that alone for the moment, he turned back to her list. “Question Four: ‘How do you feel about having your wife write novels?’” He snorted. “Did you honestly expect anyone to answer this truthfully with you breathing down their necks?”
“Not everyone is as devious as you.”
“Forgive me, I didn’t realize you were expecting a progression of saints this morning.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just for amusement’s sake, what would be your honest answer?”
He shrugged. “I have no objection to my wife writing novels as long as they’re not about me.”
“You say that now,” she said with a quiet seriousness to her voice. “But you might think otherwise when you come home to find that your dinner isn’t on the table because your wife was so swept up in her story that she forgot what time it was. Or when you find her sitting in her dressing gown scribbling madly, while your house goes to rack and ruin about your ears.”
“I can afford servants,” he countered.
“It’s not just that.” She gestured to the list. “Read the next question.”
He glanced down at the paper. “‘What sort of wife do you require?’”
“Any respectable man requires a wife who lives an irreproachable life. Why do you think I haven’t married? Because I can’t live such a life without giving up writing my novels.” She flashed him a sad smile. “And you in particular will require an irreproachable wife if you’re to succeed as a barrister.”
She had a point, but not one he dared argue at present. “I’ve already succeeded as a barrister. In any case, I haven’t lived an irreproachable life, so why should I expect my wife to do so?”
Her gaze turned cynical. “Come now, we both know that men can spend their evenings in the stews and their mornings cropsick, and other men just clap them on the back and call them fine fellows. But the wives of those men aren’t allowed to have even a hint of scandal tarnish their good names. They certainly aren’t allowed to write novels for public consumption.” She gave a dramatic shudder. “Why, that smacks of being in trade. Horrors!”
“I already told you—”
“Did you know that my mother was a writer, too?”
Now she’d surprised him. “What did she write?”
“Poetry for children. She used to read her verses to me, asking my opinion.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “But she stopped after she and Papa argued over her wish to have them published. He said that marchionesses did not publish books. It wasn’t done.” Her voice hardened. “It was fine for him to toss up the skirts of any female who took his fancy, but God forbid Mama should publish a book.”
He tensed. “I am not your father, Minerva.”
“You differ from him only in the fact that you’re unmarried. Safer to keep it that way, don’t you think?”
Damn it, sometimes his life as a scoundrel, meant to disguise his real activities, slapped him right in the face. “Or a man could change.”
“For a woman? Really? In fiction, perhaps, but rarely in life.”
“Says the woman who buries herself in her books,” he snapped. “Your idea of venturing out into life is to surround yourself with your siblings and hold off every eligible gentleman who might come near you.”
Her eyes flashed fire. “Oh, that is so like a man to say such a thing. I’m not jumping to marry you, so I must be a spinster pining away alone in her room writing. I tried venturing out into it today, didn’t I? But my brothers wouldn’t let me.”
“That was merely a ploy and you know it. You were never serious about interviewing gentlemen as husbands. You just wanted to provoke your grandmother into giving up her demands.”
He knew he’d hit on the truth when she paled. “What makes you say that?”
“You advertised it in The Ladies Magazine, a public forum, when you could as easily have managed it privately with more discretion. And you just explained to me how no respectable man wants a woman who writes novels, yet you say you don’t want me because I’m a scoundrel. If you don’t want a scoundrel and you don’t think you can have a respectable gentleman—”
“All right, drat you.” She tipped up her chin. “I have no intention of marrying you or anyone else. Can you blame me?”
“No,” he said sincerely. When she blinked, he added, “But your grandmother has made it perfectly clear that you must take a husband, so you have no choice. You can’t touch your inheritance otherwise, and neither can your siblings. And as long as you have to marry, why not marry me?”
“Is that why you want me as your wife?” she shot back. “Because of the money?”
“If you mean to insult me, you’ll have to try another tack. Money isn’t an issue for me, Minerva.”
“I doubt that. You’re a second son.”
“And a barrister who is widely sought after for his legal advice, and who charges exorbitant fees. Trust me, I can afford to keep you in gowns and jewels perfectly well without your grandmother’s money.”
“That very statement shows how little you know me. I don’t care about gowns and jewels—”
“But you care about Gabe and Celia,” he said softly. “And they’ll be left destitute if you don’t marry.”
A troubled expression knit her brow. “I’m working on a plan to change that.”
“This interview idea?” he said with a mocking smile. “First of all, your brothers are nipping that in the bud as we speak. They’re not about to let their sister marry some stranger off the street. They’re not even going to let you be exposed to such men. Secondly, you know perfectly well that Mrs. Plumtree won’t let your antics sway her from her purpose. You’ll only delay the inevitable.”
“Jarret was able to sway her from her purpose,” Minerva retorted.
“Because he had something to bargain with. You don’t.”
She flinched, then turned on her heel. “Feel free to leave at any time, Mr. Masters.”
“You know what I don’t see in this list of bloody questions?” Giles bit out, determined to provoke her into dealing with him. “I don’t see any mention of the intimate side of marriage. No questions about what your future husband would expect from you in the bedchamber. Or what you could expect from him.”
She whirled on him. “That would be vulgar.”
“And interviewing gentlemen for the position of husband isn’t? The trouble with you, my dear, is you’ve looked at marriage from every angle except the one that matters.” Tossing her list onto the table, he approached her with determined steps. “How you feel about a man. What he does to you whenever he comes near. Whether he makes your heart race and your body heat. And in that one area, I am the perfect husband for you.”
“Really?” she said, her voice deceptively sweet. “Is this the part where you sweep me into your arms and prove how you alone make my heart race and my body heat?”
“If you insist.” And with that, he caught her to him.
She didn’t resist when he covered her mouth with his. She even let him deepen the kiss. Though she didn’t throw her arms about him or melt into him as she had that night long ago, she participated actively in the kiss, letting him drive his tongue into her mouth with slowly deepening strokes. She even twined hers with his, raising his pulse to a feverish pitch.
Then she jerked back with a siren’s smile that made his confidence falter. “Well.” She tapped her chin. “That was a decent kiss, all things being equal.” She pressed her hand to her chest. “My heart is, if not quite racing, then heading into a quick walk. But I need a thermometer to determine if and how high my body heated. I shall just go—”
“Don’t you dare, you damnable minx.” He caught her by the arm as she was on the verge of fleeing. “You know bloody well that you responded to that kiss.”
With a suspicious glee in her eyes, she tugged her arm from his grip. “I’m not saying I didn’t respond—just that I didn’t respond to any overwhelming degree. But it was a good kiss, I suppose. Better than some, not as good as others.”
“What the hell do you mean? How many chaps have you kissed in the last nine years, anyway?”
“No more than you’ve kissed women, I should imagine.”
“But don’t worry—I don’t think the average woman would complain about your kissing. You’re perfectly competent.”
Competent? Bloody insolent chit. Even knowing that she was trying to provoke him didn’t ease his wounded pride. “Perhaps we should try it again.”
She darted back from him with alarming speed. “I think not. You really ought to go, Giles—my brothers will be none too pleased to find you here alone with me. They don’t approve of you for me at all.”
That much was true. Jarret had warned him away from Minerva only a few weeks ago.
“And Gran,” she went on, “positively despises you. She thinks you’re a bad influence on Gabe. Why, only last week, she said that the next time she saw you—”
She halted as if struck dumb, her gaze wandering to the sheaf of papers.
“Yes? The next time she sees me…”
“Oh my word, that’s brilliant.” Her gaze swung back to him. “You’re brilliant, Giles!”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for the past half hour,” he grumbled.
“I mean it. This is the perfect solution to all my problems with Gran.”
His eyes narrowed. “What is?”
“You! And me! We’ll tell Gran that I’ve accepted your marriage proposal.” Minerva began to pace, her face flushed with excitement. “She’ll never approve. Seriously, she thinks you’re a ‘conscienceless scapegrace who would as soon sell his mother as behave honorably.’”
He scowled. “I knew she wasn’t fond of me, but that’s a bit harsh. I’ll have you know I treat my mother damned well, considering that she spends all her time trying to marry me off to women half my age. And your entire family seems to overlook the fact that I am a well-respected barrister with a practice that is—”
“Yes, yes, you’re a pillar of virtue,” she said sarcastically. “You’re missing the point. Gran will never let me marry you. She’s always regretted letting Mama marry Papa, and you’re practically him.”
“For God’s sake,” he said irritably, “are we back to that again?”
“It’s the perfect plan. You pretend to be betrothed to me, and once she realizes I’m serious, she’ll stop this nonsense.”
He liked this plan of hers less and less the more he heard of it. “It didn’t work for Oliver. He took Miss Butterfield as his pretend fiancé and look what happened. Not only did your grandmother hold fast to her plans, but he’s now married to the chit.”
Minerva shot him an exasperated glance. “You don’t understand. Gran liked Maria from the very beginning. She just pretended not to, which is why his plan didn’t work. Besides, it’s not the same for my brothers as it is for me and Celia. They can take care of themselves and Gran knows it. Men have all the power in marriage—they can legally beat their wives, take their money, and force them into anything they please.”
“I hope you’re not saying that I would—”
“I’m just saying that’s why Gran wasn’t worried about whom Oliver or Jarret married. But she worries a great deal about Celia and I, because our future husbands will take us out of her control. Anything could happen.” A devilish gleam lit her eyes. “Which is why she’ll be far more particular about whom we marry. And you will send her into fits.”
This was becoming annoying. “You underestimate your grandmother, my dear.”
“Trust me, I know her too well to do that. But this will push her over the edge—I’m sure of it. The longer we’re betrothed, the more alarmed she’ll get.” She rounded on him with a little cry of delight. “And if she doesn’t, Jarret and Oliver will make sure she does! They definitely won’t approve of you as my husband. They’ll work on her to get her to relent, especially if they think I really mean to marry you.”
She clapped her hands together. “Eventually, I’ll have her exactly where I want her, and she’ll be forced to rescind her ultimatum. What a brilliant plan!”