Grace Under Fire

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Lady Grace Hannington is the most inaptly named debutante in all of London. Cursed with two left feet, hands that are nothing but thumbs, and a stutter, she’s certain to spend the next five years on the wall and the rest of her life on the shelf. Or so she believes, until her clumsiness pitches her literally into the arms of Lord Colin Fitzgerald and his best friend, Atticus Stilwell.

Colin and Atticus have been inseparable since a shared boyhood tragedy brought them together more than twenty years ago. Though it raises eyebrows, they share everything…including women. This particular quirk has made it all but impossible for Colin, whose title and lands will revert to the crown if he doesn’t have a legitimate heir, to find a respectable lady who’s willing to be his wife.

When a stroke of good fortune—and a little intervention from a well-placed foot—gives the two men a golden opportunity to show the lovely and lonely Lady Grace she’s not quite so gauche as she believes, they play it (and her) for all they’re worth. But once she’s discovered her true talents lie not on the dance floor but in the bedroom, Grace must decide whether a scandalous marriage that’s sure to ruin her reputation is what she really wants.

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London, 1795

It was a truth universally acknowledged that Lady Grace Hannington was the most inaptly named young lady in all of England, if not all Christendom. Within two months of her debut, she had ruined at least a dozen gowns—none her own—and half as many cravats by spilling tea, wine, or some sort of sauce upon them, trod heavily upon many a gentleman’s slippered toe, and broken the nose of one unfortunate chap with a misplaced elbow during a reel. That list of missteps did not encompass the full measure of the lady’s sheer gracelessness, however, for she was forever nursing some sort of self-inflicted injury, ranging from a sprained wrist and a stubbed toe to this evening’s glorious and ill-concealed black eye.

Atticus Stilwell wondered from his vantage on the opposite side of the crowded ballroom how she had come by that shiner. Not that it mattered. With or without the swollen, bluish-purple tinge beneath her eye, she was by far the loveliest woman in the room. Oh, perhaps not in the classic sense of a delicate English rose, but then, she stood a head taller than any other lady in the room—and fully half the men—and her hair was an entirely too flamboyant shade of red for traditional beauty.

In fact, everything about her was lush and flamboyant, from the blazing color of her unruly curls to the ripe red of her too-wide lips to the plump mounds of her generous tits. Though he could only guess at what lay beneath the loose folds of her high-waisted gown, he imagined a slender waist curving into broad but perfectly proportioned hips and from there into shapely legs that would go on forever. Though she was consigned by her ungainliness on the dance floor—and nearly everywhere else—to the role of a perpetual wallflower at Society events, Atticus saw the woman she could blossom into if only she were freed from the expectations of fashion and propriety.

A woman who was more than enough for not one man, but two.

She shifted in her chair, causing her breasts to come dangerously close to overtopping the lacy edge of her gown’s scooped neckline, and licked her lips. Her gaze darted in the direction of the table upon which the lemonade bowl rested, and beside which he and Lord Fitzgerald had been lurking for the past twenty minutes.

Atticus glanced at Colin. “Are we in agreement that she is the one?”

His friend—for although the word friend did not capture the depth of their affection and attachment, it was the closest one available in the English language—nodded. “She is perfect.”

Atticus’s balls tightened with anticipation as Lady Grace rose from her chair, knocking it dangerously askew in the process. She whirled to catch it before it toppled over, and her dark green skirts billowed crazily about her legs, affording him a tantalizing glimpse of a trim pair of ankles before they settled back into place. He could scarcely wait to plant kisses upon those ankles, then upward along her calves and thighs before setting his mouth to the sweet, juicy flesh between…

An elbow connected with his ribs. “Pay attention. She’s coming,” Colin hissed.

She soon would be if Atticus had anything to say about it. Then he realized what Colin meant.

Time to put their plan in motion.

*

Grace negotiated the potted plants and clusters of people separating her from a desperately needed glass of lemonade without incident. Really, this was a considerable improvement over her performance at the ball she had attended last week, when she had caught her foot on the—ridiculously, she thought—long train of Lady Aberdeen’s skirt and gone careening into a large fern. It would not have been quite so humiliating had she not righted herself only to land flat on her backside when she walked directly into the glass door that led to the retiring rooms, resulting in the fading black eye she sported this evening.

She huffed to herself in righteous indignation. If they didn’t want people to walk into glass doors, they oughtn’t keep them so clean!

Breathing a mental sigh of relief, she reached the table upon which the lemonade bowl stood without tripping or bumping into anyone…or anything. If she could simply down her refreshment here without having to transport it elsewhere, she might avoid the ignominy of yet another mishap involving spilt liquids. After pouring herself a full glass, however, she realized it was not to be. The music had ceased and a queue of thirsty dancers was building behind her.

Drat and blast!

Balancing the cup carefully in one hand, she stepped away from the table and toward the ever-growing throng of people lining the walls. Upon seeing her and noting the full glass clutched precariously between her fingers, the sensible folks parted like the Red Sea in the face of Moses. A few, however, watched without stepping aside, among them two gentleman Grace felt certain she had never seen before.
If she had seen them, she surely would have remembered, for each was uniquely arresting. They stood side by side, and from a distance, one might have imagined them nearly identical in appearance. Both were tall and fit, dark-haired and strikingly handsome. But where one man had gentle brown eyes, the other had piercing blue ones. And the differences didn’t end there.

Grace found her gaze drawn first to the brown-eyed man. The crease in his left cheek made him appear jolly and good-natured, a man who might be prone to easy laughter. And yet, there was an edge of danger to him, evident in the strong set of his square jaw and the slight, hawkish hook at the end of his nose. Her hand trembled as she realized his eyes were caressing her, lingering appreciatively at her lips, the curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts. A peculiar heat washed over her—not the embarrassed sort, with which she was intimately familiar, but an exciting, pleasurable, and utterly foreign sensation that settled, most outrageously, between her thighs.

Feeling her face flush, she looked away, only to have her gaze caught and held by the blue-eyed man who stood next to him. He, too, studied her with an intensity that trapped her breath inside her lungs. This man’s countenance gave no hint of kindness or humor, though it was possible he was even more handsome than his companion. His long, narrow face was marked by sharp, high cheekbones and, more ominously, by a scar that slashed from his left temple to just below his ear. The sort of scar a man gained in hand-to-hand combat and survived only because he dispatched his opponent to the good graces of his Maker.

She shivered, but she wasn’t cold. Oh, no, she was doubly hot, for Sir Blue Eyes licked his lips, as if anticipating something sweet and wicked. How did she know that? She couldn’t say, except that his eyes seemed to savor her as if she were a fine wine or a rich dessert.

Her steps faltered, and lemonade sloshed over the rim of the cup and onto her hand. The cool stickiness of the liquid wrenched her from her entirely inappropriate thoughts, but it wasn’t enough to prevent what happened next.

As she snatched her gaze away from Sir Blue Eyes and focused on maneuvering around the two distracting gentlemen, she tripped. How or on what, she couldn’t have said, for there had been no obstacles in her path. All she knew was that one moment she was upright, and the next she was tumbling forward, sprawling toward the ground, the cup flying from her hand as she strove to break her fall.

And then, miraculously, the falling stopped.

Warm arms cradled her tight against a solid chest. The cup clattered to the floor, and she realized the front of her gown was cold and wet. At least this time, she had spilled something on her own dress, not someone else’s.

“I’m qu-qu-quite all right,” she murmured, not daring to look up and see whether it was Sir Blue Eyes or Mr. Dimpled Cheek who had caught her. Either one would make her knees wobble and her stomach flutter.

“But quite damp,” came the amused reply.

Mr. Dimpled Cheek, then, she decided.

“As am I,” another male voice observed.

Sir Blue Eyes. Oh dear, she had spilled the lemonade on him as well as herself. So much for having ruined only her own clothing. How mortifying.

Mr. Dimpled Cheek set her on her feet. “We’d best get you to a retiring room to clean up, my dear.”

Grace finally dared to lift her gaze. Her stomach flipped, just as she’d expected. “That’s quite all right, sir. I can manage on my own.”

Mr. Dimpled Cheek grinned. Sure enough, a deep, devilish crease appeared there. “I beg to differ.”

“B-b-but my ch-chaperone…” she protested, glancing to the opposite side of the ballroom where she’d left Aunt Georgie. The elderly woman sat precisely where Grace had left her, dozing in her chair.

“Is otherwise occupied,” Sir Blue Eyes supplied. “Please, allow us to escort you, my lady.”

She oughtn’t, of course, but the wetness seeping through her bodice and into her stays was a compelling reason to quit the ballroom as soon as possible. Besides, what harm could befall her between here and the retiring rooms in a townhouse full of people?

You could be eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. Or wolves, her cautious, sensible side argued.

She looked from one man to another, and the heat in her belly thickened at the expressions on their faces. Not pitying nor condescending, but admiring. And hungry.

A treacherous, irrational voice whispered in her head. Would it be so awful to be devoured?

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