(Lively St. Lemeston #4)
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“I pick up Rose Lerner’s books to be delighted, seduced, and surprised….Swoonworthy romance.” —USA Today bestselling author Meredith Duran
Fire and ice cream…
Robert Moon spent his last penny to open his beloved Honey Moon Confectionery. Facing bankruptcy and debtor’s prison, he jumps at the chance to cater a local ball, even if it means closing the bakery for a week and asking his lovely shop-girl for help in the kitchen.
Betsy Piper has spent the last year trying to make her single-minded boss look up from his pastries and notice that she would be the perfect wife. With just seven days to make him fall in love with her, she’d better get this seduction started…
Contains a perfectionist confectioner getting his lust desserts.
other books in the Lively St. Lemeston series
And the first in a related series of f/f Gothics, The Wife in the Attic, is out now! Lady Tassell gets one of Miss Humphrey’s boarders a job as governess in lonely, far-off Rye Bay…
Listen or learn more.
Robert Moon stood at the low fire stirring a copper kettle of boiling sugar, coffee, and cream. It was nearly to caramel height, and a good thing too, for Robert had been standing there far too long. His skin itched with a combination of dripping sweat and all the things he’d ought to do instead.
This task belonged to his apprentice Peter Makepeace, but Peter’s great-aunt was ill in London and like to die, and the Makepeaces had begged to take him up North in hopes she’d remember the lad in her will.
Maybe I hadn’t ought to have agreed, Robert thought for the thousandth time in two days.
He’d got spoiled, having someone about to do all the things he’d rather not. Of course he couldn’t deny Peter this chance.
Dipping his finger into the bowl of cold water behind him, he dipped it quickly in the pot, and back in the water. The sugar slipped off and floated, hardening. But it stuck to his teeth. He wiped the sweat from his face and stirred on.
The doorbell rang at the front of the shop. Betsy’s voice welcomed a customer, a cheerful murmur he couldn’t make out.
He knew how she’d look, the hopeful arch of her eyebrows and sunny bow of her lips, the soft curve of her cheek as she tilted her head. The sweet flare of her hips under her gown and apron. He wished he could see it.
He wished Peter were here. Alone in the great oven of a kitchen, hours behind where he’d ought to be, how could he even daydream that the shop would ever succeed far enough that he could ask Betsy to marry him? The Honey Moon brought in more money than half a year ago—but half a year ago he’d been this close to…
He tried not to think the word, made an empty space in his mind where it had been. The emptiness was still the shape of the word, though.
He turned back to his sugar. Even-almost…
Betsy pushed through the swinging door. The summer sun turned her hair yellow as an apple, and her hazel eyes were bright and warm with excitement.
“It’s Mrs. Lovejoy. She might want us to make the collation for next week’s assembly! I told her she’d ought to speak with you, Mr. Moon. She wants it settled on the spot.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Betsy’s longsuffering shrug.
Mrs. Lovejoy, wife of a wealthy wholesaler who sat on the Lively St. Lemeston Assembly Rooms governing committee, was one of their bettermost customers, if bettermost was measured in guineas. Robert wondered now and again if her money really paid for the many hours he and Betsy had spent with her, coddling and courting and nodding sympathetically at complaints.
The bakery in Runford had had its share of difficult customers, but Robert was still sometimes shocked at how the rich folk here, used to getting what they wanted, could carry on.
Well, that was his own fault for opening a shop that sold expensive things. As Betsy always said, If people can murder each other, it hadn’t ought to shock you when they’re a bit rude now and again. Robert knew a loyal customer like Mrs. Lovejoy gave returns that couldn’t be measured only in what she herself bought.
And here was the proof of it: the collation for an assembly would bring in a whacking sum, and put his sweets in the mouths of dunnamany of the town’s wealthiest folks.
Could he manage the work without Peter?
He tested the caramel once more. Still a touch shy of crackly.
“I’m in a hurry, Mr. Moon,” Mrs. Lovejoy called from the front.
He could see no help for it. “It’s eenamost ready. You’ve to tend it.”
Betsy drew back. “But I’ve never—”
“Faith, it’s simple. You’ve only to dip your finger in water, and the sugar, and the water again, and when it shatters like glass between your teeth, it’s done. Take it off the fire and pour it in that tin plate, and roll it flat with the buttered rolling pin.”
“Let her once in the kitchen, and we’ll never be rid of her.”
Betsy couldn’t argue with that. She took the spoon with an adorable quiver of her mouth.
Robert wanted to give her a reassuring touch. He gave her a smile instead. “I’ll be back in no more’n a hundred years or so, never fear.”
Mrs. Lovejoy stood at the counter, in nervesome fidgets. Her face brightened when she saw him. “Oh, Mr. Moon! You’ll never believe what my husband has done. He was charged with ordering the collation for next week’s assembly, and the fool clean forgot. How he could when the whole town is talking of nothing but the assembly, I’m sure I don’t know. But that’s men for you.”
Robert smiled politely. “We struggle against our natures, Mrs. Lovejoy.”
She smiled back. Was that a slight flutter of her eyelashes? He hoped not. “The smell in here is calming my nerves as it always does. I always say, the Honey Moon is a refuge. Sometimes I can’t hear myself think in the flipper-de-flapper out there, and then I come into your shop and smell delicious things and I can breathe again.”
“Thank you, ma’am. That’s exactly what I wanted when I opened the place. Now tell me about the assembly. How many folk are you expecting?”
She sighed heavily. “You never know with these country assemblies, do you? I told my husband we ought to keep it the second of August. We’ve had it then ever since the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and we’ve had good luck with that date. But nothing would suit the newer members of the committee but that we have it straightaway in June to celebrate Wellington and Vitoria.”
She leaned in confidingly. “Well, the poor creatures have no experience organizing such large affairs, do they? It’s all political to them. They prefer Wellington above Nelson because his brother is quarreling with the Prime Minister over the Catholic question.”
Since the Battle of Vitoria was cause for jubilation across all of Europe that wasn’t yet under the Corsican Monster’s thumb, Robert wondered if that might be a trifle unfair. But faith, you could never tell. Politics in Lively St. Lemeston was like watching French chefs argue over the bettermost way to make gravy.
“In the end the best we could do was compromise, and so we’re having it next Tuesday. The date has no significance to anyone at all, so who can say who will bother to turn up? And then Mr. Lovejoy forgot about the supper entirely. It will be a disastrous evening if we can’t save it.” She leaned in further, as if they were co-conspirators.
After several more minutes of wheedling, she owned that she was expecting between one and two hundred guests. Robert would have to make enough for two hundred twenty-five at least; running out was unthinkable. Could it be done in a week?
“There’ll have to be ices,” she said. “Ices, or I go elsewheres. Ices will make everyone forget what a dreadful hot evening they’re having.” She smiled archly.
Robert smiled back uneasily. Ices were a punishment to transport, and they couldn’t be hardened in large molds if they weren’t to be served and divided at once. Everyone would want some, which meant two hundred twenty-five individual ices in ice chests, and in this heat it might be an hour and a half to properly congeal one batch.
Still, the Assembly Rooms were just down the street, to the other side of Market Square and a bit.
“How much were you hoping to spend?” he asked.
“Oh, not above twenty-five pounds.”
Robert swallowed, struck dumb.
Twenty-five pounds—and out-and-out, guaranteed! Not having to be hoped and haggled and nipped for. Twenty-five pounds would keep the bailiffs from the door a few more months at least.
He’d risked his all to open this shop: sold his great-grandfather’s bakery, leased premises on the main street of the biggest town in the district. Most eateries that opened failed, and the few that did make money, generally only after they’d been open for years. But Robert had got this far, and he’d done it by snatching every chance he could and making the best sweets he knew how.
He’d never tasted ices to beat his own. If he could do this—
Betsy poked her head through the swinging door, looking frowzy and red and miserable. Damp strands of blond hair clung to her forehead.
“Mr. Moon,” she said, so quiet he almost couldn’t hear her.
He knew what she was going to tell him already. “Can you pour it off and save what’s on top?”
She hung her head. “I scraped it off the bottom without realizing. It’s through and through. I’m that sorry.”
He did his best to smile at her. “Set her on the table then. I’ll be in soon as ever I can. We’ll make burnt caramel sauce instead.”
That was at least a shillingsworth more cream and coffee, to thin it down, and the sauce sure to go grainy before they could sell enough cake to top with it.
“I like that girl,” Mrs. Lovejoy said softly when the door had stopped swinging, “but she isn’t very bright, is she? You ought to find somebody better. You owe it to yourself.”
“Betsy does very well,” he said, sharper than he meant to. “I’ve burnt dunnamuch caramel in my time. It’s only a second or two this way and that.”
It made him sick to his stomach every time, all that sweet, rich labor and love gone to ruin in the blink of an eye. Oh, folks liked burnt caramel all right. But it always killed him to know what could have been, if he’d only done it right.
He’d ought to say no to Mrs. Lovejoy. He’d ought to just struggle on slowly and quietly, like the tortoise in the fable. It was folly to take this order. He’d have to close the shop all week and work on nothing else, with no help but Betsy’s. She was a clever girl whatever Mrs. Lovejoy thought, but she wasn’t a confectioner.
But Robert didn’t want to go slowly and quietly. If he could do this, maybe by the end of the year, or by next summer, he could ask Betsy to marry him.
“I’d be that honored, ma’am, thank you,” he said. “You won’t regret it.”
“And he wants me to help him!” Betsy finished in triumph. “This is my chance.”
Her friend Jemima looked unimpressed. “Your chance to do what, pray? Besides slave at a hot fire all the livelong day.” She set aside the Lively St. Lemeston Intelligencer with a sigh and picked up the Times. “No murders in Sussex this week.”
Every Tuesday, when the town newspaper came out, they met at the Makepeaces’ coffeehouse to go through all the weeks’ papers for interesting crimes.
Today they’d been obliged to go to the Cocoa Seedling since all the Makepeaces were in London. Jemima was just out of sorts at having to give Tories her hard-earned coin for such weak coffee.
“Here’s a haunting that could have been a murder.” Betsy passed the Evening Chronicle across the table. “If two people fall mysteriously down the stairs at one inn, and each time the sole witness is the innkeeper’s wife, maybe the coroner hadn’t ought to be so certain-sure it’s a ghost. Anyways, you know what I mean. My chance to prove that a wife’s not a burden and an expense. A wife is a helpmeet.”
She felt hot, and ashamed all over again, thinking on the morning’s caramel ignominy. “I’ll do everything perfect, and he’ll realize he needs me.”
Jemima rolled her eyes. “You’ve been mooning after him for how long? He took the first moment when he hired you to let drop—oh, no reason why, just for something to say—that he weren’t looking for a wife, and then he eenamost married that widow for money. What makes you think he’d like to marry you at all?”
Betsy pressed her lips together. Jemima had been patient and encouraging about this at first. But that was more than a year ago now. And Jemima had taken it hard, harder even than Betsy, when Robert had courted another woman.
He hadn’t loved Mrs. Sparks—Mrs. Dymond now, of course. He’d only done it because the Whig patroness of the town had promised to pay his debts, for marriage to Mrs. Dymond would have made him a voter under the town charter and votes were a precious commodity.
But it had still hurt, and Jemima couldn’t forgive that.
“He told me that because he shouldn’t like to raise false hopes. Because he likes me. I can tell.” Betsy hoped. “He’s that sweet, he wouldn’t want to see someone he loved do without. What he said was, he wouldn’t take a wife until the Honey Moon is a success. The sooner we can make a success of it, the sooner—”
Jemima’s straight dark brows drew together harshly. “Or he’s a coward who weaseled out of having to say he didn’t want you.”
Betsy’s heart sank. What if Jemima had the right of it?
“You already good as run that shop,” her friend said. “You don’t need him to see you as a helpmeet. You need him to see you as a woman.”
Betsy’s heart popped up again and peered hopefully about. “Do you think so?”
Jemima nodded like her head was on a hinge. She knew whereof she spoke; Betsy always wondered a little that boys, who seemed a timid lot on the whole, weren’t frightened off by her square jaw and piercing dark gaze, but she had a new beau every week.
“I couldn’t—I couldn’t seduce him.” Betsy flushed. “I’d feel that silly.”
Jemima waved this away. “Seducing a man just means letting him know you’d kiss him back if he tried it. And then kissing him yourself, if he’s too shy. You needn’t bunger about licking your lips or leaning over to show him your tits. Just smile at him, look him in the eye, and make a few dirty jokes so he knows you know what’s what. It’s not as if Robert Moon’s had all sorts of beautiful women chucking themselves at him. You’ll do fine.”
Betsy couldn’t help a sorrowful inkling that that advice would do very well for Jemima, but wouldn’t suit her at all. She saw her own apple-cheeked face in the mirror every morning, if a bit dimly as it wasn’t a very good mirror.
She was pretty enough, but if she were a flower, she’d be a daisy, if she were a bird, she’d be a robin, and if she were a pastry, she wouldn’t be a French pastry, or even a rich dark honey-bun. She was simple and wholesome as a fresh-baked roll. The only remotely wicked thing about her was that she enjoyed shivering over The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register.
But she’d kiss Robert Moon back if he tried it.
Heat flared inside her at the thought, low and hungry and not simple or wholesome at all. “All right, I will.”
Jemima smiled. “Good on you.”
She would. She’d whiled away enough time meekly waiting for him to notice her. She’d make him see her as a woman, she’d bed him if he was willing, and then, if he still hadn’t asked her to marry him when the assembly was over, she’d give her two weeks’ notice and find somewheres else to work.
And she’d have memories to take with her.
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“WHAT A DELIGHT. Protagonists managing a shared project is one of my favorite things, and Rose Lerner brings her customary acuity to Robert and Betsy….I cannot emphasize enough how sweet and dear this book is.” —Reading the End
“the actual historical pegging gold standard” —Cat Sebastian
“A heroine as appealing as fresh-baked bread and a naïve, virgin hero who’s a quick study…in a heated story brimming with mouth-watering candy-making descriptions so vivid the fragrance of caramel wafts from the pages…Explicitly sexy, funny, and sweet as spun sugar, this engaging, erotic bagatelle is a decadent treat for fans who like their romances on the edgy side.” —Library Journal