Time for another teaser excerpt from True Pretenses! Remember, you can read the complete first chapter and pre-order the book here.
In this scene, Ash brings his little brother Rafe to meet Lydia for the first time, hoping they’ll fall in love.
Backstory: Lydia’s father Lord Wheatcroft (Lady Tassell’s arch-nemesis from Sweet Disorder) died shortly before the book starts and Lydia really misses him.
Aunt Packham bustled in, and Lydia put on a smile for her. “Oh, you poor thing,” her aunt said. “When the visitors are gone we’ll put a warm compress on your eyes, with an infusion of rose petals. It will be just the thing.”
Lydia felt panicked out of all proportion, as if the whole world were looking at her. She had to wipe the strain from her face.
Well, and she could. She had been a political hostess since she was seventeen. Taking a deep breath, she shut her eyes and tried to find something glad that didn’t have her father in it. Even the roar of the crowd when the Tories won both seats in the recent election was tainted. She had been overjoyed; so had her father, and he’d had too much champagne and galloped home in the dark and now he was dead.
She thought of tea. Tea, and jam on toast. She breathed in deep, imagining she was smelling rich black pekoe tea. She imagined the crunch of the toast and tart sweet raspberry jam. The door opened and Luke carried in the tea tray. The smell wafted from the pot, adding to Lydia’s calm. She smiled at the footman and thanked him, feeling almost herself.
“I don’t know how you do that, dear,” Aunt Packham said, comfortably admiring. “A born hostess. Your father always said you could smile when the world was ending.”
Lydia’s newfound serenity wobbled. She took the lid off the teapot and leaned over it, breathing in the bittersweet, luxurious scent.
The door opened. She replaced the lid without hurrying, so as not to look as if she had been caught doing something strange, and stood with a smile. She felt genuinely well on the surface. Underneath…she could ignore that. “I do love the smell of fresh-brewed tea. How do you do, Mr. Cahill?”
The corners of his eyes crinkled warmly. “Very well, thank you. Miss Reeve, Mrs. Packham, may I present my brother, Mr. Ralph Cahill?”
She held out her hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ralph.”
Mr. Ralph stepped forward, into the light. Lydia drew in a breath. He was—she couldn’t find a word. She was speechless. He’s good looking, she told herself firmly. That’s all. Plenty of men are good looking.
But Mr. Ralph was something out of the common way. He was well above six feet, his shoulders like something cast in bronze. His hair, tied in a short, old-fashioned queue, was molten gold in the candlelight. His features were chiseled, his movements graceful, and best of all, his smile lit up the room. Solid, bright, a hint of wickedness with nothing of disrespect. “It can’t be half as nice as meeting you, Miss Reeve,” he said. His voice was special too, a deep, confident, comforting rumble.
He wasn’t what she’d expected from unassuming Mr. Cahill’s brother. She fought a blush and sat as he bowed over Aunt Packham’s hand with equal grace. “Please, sit. Would you like some tea?”
They clustered round the fire, Mr. Ralph taking the seat by her while Mr. Cahill took a chair by her aunt. “Tea would be splendid,” Mr. Ralph rumbled, smiling again. His simple good humor was infectious. As she poured tea and listened to his earnest compliments on her biscuits, her earlier depression melted away like frost on a window when the fire was lit.
“How long have you been in town?” she asked.
“I came in on today’s stage. My brother said you were the thing best worth seeing in the neighborhood.”
“I promise to show him the church and the workhouse on another day.” Mr. Cahill looked up at his brother, obvious affection in every line of his plain face, and she felt a great pang of liking for him. A pang of envy too; his little brother, who wanted to settle down, had come to be with him at Christmastime.
Jamie wanted you to go with him, she reminded herself. “Mr. Cahill is very kind,” she said, and meant it. His deep brown eyes met hers and he smiled. Just a tiny quirk of the lips, but her face felt hotter than it had at first sight of Mr. Ralph’s cast-in-bronze glory.