RELUCTANT BRIDES…When love is the key and dowry the bait, who can predict what a woman might do?
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She’s also a lawyer and mom, and at age 40, with two babies at home, she started a new career as a commercial fiction writer. She’d hoped to be a suspense novelist, but couldn’t sell any of her manuscripts, so she ended up taking a detour into romance, where she was stunned to discover that she has an incredible knack for writing some of the world’s greatest love stories.
Her books have been released to wide acclaim, and she has won or been nominated for many national awards. She is particularly proud to have been named “Best Storyteller of the Year,” by the trade magazine, Romantic Times BOOK Reviews.
Her hot, sexy, dramatic stories of passion and illicit love have captivated fans around the world, and she’s celebrated as the Queen of Erotic Romance, which is currently the fastest selling subgenre of women’s fiction. Due to the ferociousness of some of her characters, she’s also known as the International Queen of Villains.
She received degrees in music, languages, and education, from South Dakota State University, and her juris doctorate was obtained at the University of Wyoming. Her colorful and chaotic employment history includes such variety as public school teacher, cook, bartender, lobbyist, and political activist. She also did brief stints in metro-Denver as a deputy district attorney and administrative law judge.
Cheryl lives and writes in Hollywood, California.
Mr. Oswald studied her face and grimaced. “I’ve upset you.”
“I wasn’t aware that you’d been married so many times,” Rose said. “It’s a shock to me.”
“If I’d told you the truth, I wasn’t sure you’d have come.”
“What became of all your wives?”
“They died. What would you suppose?”
“Well, of course, they died.” She was struggling for calm, for levity. “How silly of me to wonder.”
“I’ve been blessed with longevity, Miss Ralston, and I’ve been cursed with brides who had frail constitutions. I outlived them all, so on this occasion, I’m determined to settle on someone who is healthy and strong. Miss Peabody swore you had the stamina of a plow horse.”
“How flattering.” There was more aggravation in her tone than she’d intended.
“Don’t mock your youth or vigor. They are precisely why I selected you. It’s too late for me to fool with weaklings or ninnies. Miss Peabody promised you would surprise me on both counts.”
“I hope I can live up to her high opinion.”
“I hope you can too.” He clasped her hand and patted it. “In all my marriages, I’ve only ever sired one child, and he passed away years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“So that is why you’ve been summoned. I have no time to waste and need an heir—as quickly as it can be managed. In exchange, I will give you all this.” He gestured at the manicured grounds, the grand manor. “It’s a fair bargain, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” she hesitantly concurred, not knowing what else to say.
“Heed me, Miss Ralston. I’m older than you and more experienced in these sorts of affairs. This is the best conclusion for you. After you’ve reflected on it, you’ll see that I’m right.”
“I’m sure I will.”
They’d arrived at the house, at the steps that led up onto the rear verandah. It was a beautiful day in early summer, and the drawing room windows were open. Male laughter drifted out, and a merry tune was being played on the pianoforte.
Mr. Oswald frowned and muttered, “Those scalawags. They’re home from the army and at loose ends. No doubt they’re drinking all my liquor and smoking all my cigars.”
“Who is visiting?”
“Two of the most disreputable scapegraces who were ever born. You’ll meet them soon enough. Unfortunately.” He guided her up the stairs. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d better chase them off.”
Just that abruptly, he walked away, leaving her alone.
He stomped inside. She wanted to tag along, wanted to ascertain who was home from the army, but she’d definitely been dismissed, so she didn’t dare follow.
Yet she was dreadfully curious.
She’d spent an hour with Mr. Oswald and hadn’t gleaned any information of value. If she’d been a weepy type, tears might have flowed. But she wasn’t weepy. Nor was she prone to melancholy.
When she’d agreed to Miss Peabody’s scheme, there had been no guarantees of love or affection. There had only been the prospect of marriage and fiscal security, and they were boons that couldn’t be discounted.
Eager to wash and rest a bit, she started across the verandah, but she couldn’t resist peeking in the window to the drawing room as she passed. There were two men present. Why was she not surprised to discover that one of them was James Talbot?
He slouched on a sofa, drinking hard spirits. A handsome blond man who was probably his same age was seated at the pianoforte. They looked lazy and bored.
Since his unexpected appearance in her bedchamber the prior evening, she’d tried to pretend he hadn’t been there. She’d been dying to ask someone about him, but couldn’t figure out how to innocently inquire.
He’d studied her as if he knew things about her she didn’t know. He’d alluded to Mr. Oswald with a derogatory comment about his being a seducing libertine. Yet she couldn’t envision Mr. Oswald as a roué. He hadn’t seemed flirtatious in the least, and Rose had no idea how to find out the truth of the matter.
Was it any of her business? She was quite sure a husband could act however he liked, and she didn’t see how she—who was just beginning her official position as fiancée—had any standing to question him as to his personal habits or to complain over conduct of which she didn’t approve.
She heard Mr. Oswald inside. “Why are you wastrels in my parlor? Didn’t I tell you to keep yourselves busy this afternoon?”
“We are busy,” Mr. Talbot replied.
“Doing what?” Mr. Oswald barked. “You’ve helped yourself to the liquor, and I’ve learned from past experience that—with Lucas in residence—you’ll consume it all before you depart for London.”
The blond man’s grin was as devilish as Mr. Talbot’s. “You’re completely right, Mr. Oswald. I’d offer to pay you for it, but you’ve always been so generous. I wouldn’t want to insult you.”
“Don’t be smart,” Mr. Oswald snapped at him.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
Mr. Talbot and the blond man, Lucas, shared a mocking toast, and Mr. Talbot said to Mr. Oswald, “Are you pleased with your bride?”
“High praise indeed,” Mr. Talbot retorted.
He was sitting near the window, and he glanced out to the verandah to the exact spot where Rose was loitering and eavesdropping. He stared directly at her, as if he’d known she was there the entire time.
She blanched and fled.
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