An All's Fair in Love Novella
Prudence Landon has always done exactly as she should. She’s obeyed her parents’ every word, lived by society’s every dictate, and even agreed to marry a man more than twice her age simply because it was expected of her. In the fortnight before her wedding, she decides it’s high time to bend a few rules before life as she knows it is over.
Viscount Ashby leads a charmed life. Betrothed since the age of seven, he is perfectly content to allow his off-the-market status to keep the marriage-minded mamas at bay. When he returns home to his parent’s estate and finds their prim, straight-laced young neighbor swimming naked in broad daylight, he’s both amused and intrigued.
When Ash discovers Prudence’s upcoming nuptials to the aging squire, he decides to help her live a little before the parson’s mousetrap springs closed. But what started as good fun soon leads to something much more. With her wedding fast approaching, they must choose between breaking all the rules and losing their one chance for happiness.
NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER AT THE FOLLOWING VENDORS:
Vexed by a Viscount - Novella #4
As her toes sank into the slimy muck of the lake bottom, Prudence Landon was beginning to rethink the items on her list. Swimming naked in the lake was supposed to be freeing, exhilarating, and deliciously naughty. Instead, it was cold, dirty, and more than a little disgusting.
Making a face, she paddled backwards, attempting to swim out to deeper water where her feet wouldn’t touch the bottom. The further she swam, the more she imagined some unknown lake creature darting out from its underwater lair and nipping her in the backside. The very thought made her swish her arms around wildly, attempting to discourage any such animal from getting any ideas.
Speaking of ideas, this was a bad one. A very bad one. Her only swimming experience in the past had been during her trips to see her aunt in Brighton, where the sea bottom was composed of coarse, firmly packed sand—completely devoid of slime—and the water was clear enough to vaguely see one’s toes.
Still, as much as she wanted to abandon her swim and escape to shore, this was her pre-marriage, last-chance-to-live checklist, and by Jove she was going to do it right. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, the horses were galloping…wait, what?
She froze, nearly going under in the process before remembering to tread water as she listened over the sudden hammering of her own pulse. That was definitely the sound of hooves pounding the earth in the near distance.
Drat it all! Here she was, naked as the day she was born, her clothes an impossible distance away on shore, trying to do something brave and daring for once in her life and this was what happened?
She stayed as low as she could in the water, paddling all four limbs with tiny movements in an effort to keep herself as still as humanly possible without drowning in the murky, icky depths.
A man on horseback appeared through the trees. The horse was moving faster than at a canter, but not quite at a gallop. It was impossible to know his identity—or even his age or hair color—as he streaked through the trees. Her heart thundered away, making it hard to draw a proper breath as she watched him pass within yards of the shore. By some miracle, he didn’t turn his head the required angle that would allow him to see her pale pink gown draped neatly over the fallen log by the water.
Keep going, keep going. The words ran through her mind like a prayer as she willed him to somehow miss the stark naked blonde trespassing in her neighbor’s most remote lake. Oh heavens, why had she taken the chance? Why had she thought she could break the rules and get away with it?
Yes, she had it on the very best authority that Lord and Lady Malcolm were at a house party a hundred miles from here. And yes, she knew they wouldn’t be back until July, a good fortnight away, but she should have known that the very first time she did anything wrong in her life she would be caught.
Her mother was going to kill her.
No, she wouldn’t be that lucky. Her mother would simply lock her away until her wedding day, so that she couldn’t get into any more trouble on her watch. The very thought made Prudence’s throat squeeze. She needed these next few weeks of freedom. They were the last she would ever have once she was married off to Squire Jeffries.
Just as she was starting to panic, just when she was sure that she would find herself embroiled in the sort of scandal she had steadfastly avoided for the whole of her twenty years on this planet, the horse and rider passed right by, never slowing in pace nor veering from course.
Relief flooded through her entire body, instantly heating her chilled limbs. Blowing out a quick breath, she started for shore.
And that was when something cold, slimy, and very much alive brushed her backside.
William, Viscount Ashby, hauled back on the reins, bringing his mount to a jarring stop. What the devil…? The horse pranced as he looked around for the source of what he was absolutely certain had been a scream.
A feminine scream.
The trees around him blocked any real visibility, so he wheeled around and urged his horse back toward the clearing beside the lake that they had just passed. His blood thrummed through his veins as he scanned the passing scenery. No one should be out here, but he was certain of what he had heard. His father and stepmother were up north for a few more weeks at least, and this time of year none of the servants would venture out to this part of the property, which was reserved for hunting in the fall.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of pale fabric against the green grass. When he glanced fully at it, his eyes widened. A woman’s dress was laid out as neatly as if it had been draped upon a lady’s bed. White unmentionables where folded beside it, and a pair of dainty half-boots completed the ensemble.
With dawning incredulity, he swung his gaze out over the lake, searching for the woman who belonged to the discarded clothes. Much to his disappointment, nothing but wind-rippled water stretched before him. A wry grin tugged his lips despite the letdown. He had come out here for a bit of solitude, but he would have happily made an exception for a nude female.
After glancing around to be sure this wasn’t some sort of elaborate trap, he vaulted down from his mount and moved toward the gown. It was no maid’s dress, of that he was sure. It was clear, even to a man of his limited fashion sense, that both the cut and fabric were of exceptional quality.
So where had it come from? And why was it here?
Just as he reached out to pick up one of the shoes, a subtle splash and a quick indrawn breath of air made him jerk upright and swing around to face the water. Much to his astonishment, a flaxen-haired woman rose from the depths, her neck and shoulders bare, her skin glistening enticingly in the afternoon sunlight. He had to be dreaming. Or imagining things. Or losing his bloody mind.
But then something clicked into place in his shock-dampened brain, and he realized this was no mirage. He knew this woman, and he would have never, not in a hundred years, imagined her doing such a thing.
“Miss Landon?” he said, blinking several times just to be sure. His eyes did not deceive him. It was indeed shy, timid Miss Landon, the neighbor he had known almost his entire life but to whom he had barely spoken three complete sentences. The same woman who had always been hidden behind acres of ruffled lace and flounces, with necklines up to her chin and bonnets the size of dinner plates shading her pleasant but rather unremarkable features.
Her whole face flamed a deep red as she reluctantly met his gaze. “Lord Ashby,” she returned with a dignified nod, clearly trying to maintain her composure.
Good girl, Ash thought, more than a little surprised. Any other woman would probably be screaming her head off by then. “Is anything amiss? Should I be worried that bees are about to swarm me, perhaps? Or that a rabid badger is on the loose?”
She sank a little further into the water. It lapped at her chin as she shook her head. “Not that I’m aware of, my lord.”
The evenness of her voice was to be commended, especially when juxtaposed with the abject panic in her vivid blue eyes. Her mother must have spent every minute of the last decade training her to behave like a lady. As soon as the thought entered his mind, he realized the absurdity of it. After all, the girl was trespassing while naked on her neighbor’s property.
That thought brought him straight back to the present. More precisely, it brought his attention back to the lovely expanse of pale skin just above the water’s surface, in full view of any lucky bastard who just happened to be riding by.
Honestly, he never would have thought sweet, prim Miss Landon had it in her.
“I see,” he said, stifling the urge to laugh. “In that case, I suppose I shall leave you to your swim. Do enjoy your day, Miss Landon.”
As much as he wanted to stay and find out exactly what she was doing—and perhaps glimpse more than just the tops of her shoulders—his sense of self-preservation was far too keen to allow him to do so. He had been betrothed since he was six and Tabitha a mere infant, but that didn’t mean that someone couldn’t find a way to force him into marriage, given a bad enough situation. A situation, for example, like being caught cavorting with a naked young woman of otherwise impeccable character.
She dipped her head. “Thank you, my lord. I’m sure I will.”
Lord, but she was a treat. Tipping his hat in farewell, he headed back to his horse, chuckling to himself the whole way. He mounted up, stole one last look, and set off toward the northwestern corner of the property. With any luck, that particular section would be without any unexpected visitors.
More’s the pity.