Kiss Me, Annabel

Book 2 in the Essex Sisters series

eBook on sale $3.99 limited time onlyWhat cruel twist of fate put Miss Annabel Essex in a carriage on her way to Scotland (the place she abhors) with a penniless earl (and she longs to be rich), and all the world thinking they’re man and wife? Sleeping in the same bed? Not to mention the game of words started by the earl – in which the prize is a kiss. And the forfeit…

Well. They are almost married, after all…

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“The tone of her prose, the nuances of the era, her wit and her empowered women remind you to Austen or Heyer.”

~ Romantic Times BOOKClub (4 1/2 Stars, Top Pick)

“This well-choreographed story displays the exquisite use of language, appealing dialog, and lush sensuality that are hallmarks of James’s work.”

~ Library Journal

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From Chapter One

April, 1817

The day the Scotsman came to Lady Feddrington’s ball, Annabel’s sister decided to give him her virtue, and Annabel decided not to give him her hand in marriage.

In neither case had the Scotsman indicated a particular interest in undertaking such intimate activities with an Essex sister, but his participation was taken for granted. And naturally both of these decisions took place in the ladies’ retiring room, which is where everything of importance takes place at a ball.

It was in those middle hours, when the initial excitement has worn away and women have an uneasy feeling that their noses are shiny and their lips pale. Annabel peeked into the retiring room and found it empty. So she sat down before the large mirrored dressing table, and started trying to pin her unruly curls so they would stay above her shoulders for the rest of the evening. Her sister Imogen, Lady Maitland, plumped down beside her.

“This ball is nothing more than a breeding ground for parasites,” Imogen said, scowling at her reflection. “Lord Beekman has twice asked me to dance with him. As if I would even contemplate dancing with that plump toadlet. He should look lower...perhaps in the scullery.”

She looked magnificent, a few gleaming black curls falling to her shoulders, and the rest piled high on her head. Her eyes sparkled with the displeasure of receiving too much attention. In all, she had the magnificent rage of a young Helen of Troy, stolen by the Greeks and taken from her homeland.

It must be rather annoying, Annabel thought, to have nowhere to direct all that emotion except toward unwary gentleman who do nothing more despicable than ask for a dance. “There is always the chance that no one has told the poor toadlet that Lady Maitland is such a very grand person.” She said it lightly, since mourning had turned Imogen into a person whom none of them knew very well.

Imogen flashed her an impatient look, twitching one of her curls over her shoulder so that it nestled seductively on her bosom. “Don’t be a widgeon, Annabel. Beekman is interested in my fortune and nothing more.”

Annabel raised an eyebrow in the direction of Imogen’s virtually nonexistent bodice. “Nothing more?”

A sketch of a smile touched Imogen’s lips, one of the few Annabel had seen in recent months. Imogen had lost her husband the previous September, and after her first six months of mourning she had joined Annabel in London for the season. Currently she was amusing herself by shocking respectable matrons of the ton by flaunting a wardrobe full of mourning clothing cut in daring styles that left little of her figure to the imagination.

“You have to expect attention,” Annabel pointed out. “After all, you dressed for it.” She let a little sarcasm creep into her tone.

“Do you think that I should buy another of these gowns?” Imogen asked, staring into the mirror. She gave a seductive roll of her shoulders and the bodice settled even lower on her chest. She was dressed in black faille, a perfectly respectable fabric for a widow. But the modiste had saved on fabric, for the bodice was nothing more than a few scraps of cloth, falling to a narrow silhouette that clung to every curve. The pièce de resistance was a trim of tiny white feathers around the bodice. The feathers nestled against Imogen’s breasts and made every man who glimpsed them throw caution to the wind.

“No one has a need for more than one dress of that pattern,” Annabel pointed out.

“Madame Barbet has threatened to make another. She complains that she must sell two in order to justify her design. And I should not like to see another woman in this particular gown.”

“That’s absurd,” Annabel said. “Many women have gowns of the same design. No one will notice.”

“Everyone notices what I wear,” Imogen said, and one had to admit it was a perfect truth.

“‘Tis an indulgence to order another gown merely to allow it to languish in your wardrobe.”

Imogen shrugged. Her husband had died relatively penniless, but then his mother had fallen into a decline and died within a month of her son. Lady Clarice left her private estate to her daughter-in-law, making Imogen one of the wealthiest widows in all England. “I’ll have the gown made up for you, then. You must promise to wear it only in the country, where no one of importance can see you.”

“That gown will fall to my navel if I bend over, which hardly suits a debutante.”

“You’re no ordinary debutante,” Imogen jibed. “You’re older than me, and all of twenty-two, if you remember.”

Annabel counted to ten. Imogen was grieving. One simply had to wish that grieving didn’t make her so -- so bloody-minded. “Shall we return to Lady Griselda?” she said, rising and looking one last time at the glass.

Suddenly Imogen was at her shoulder, smiling penitently. “I’m sorry to be so tiresome. You’re the most beautiful woman at the ball, Annabel. Look at the two of us together! You’re glowing and I look like an old crow.”

Annabel grinned at that. “A crow you’re not.” There was a similarity to their features: they both had slanting eyes and high cheekbones. But where Imogen’s hair was raven black, Annabel’s was the color of honey. And where Imogen’s eyes flashed, Annabel knew quite well that her greatest strength was a melting invitation that men seemed unable to resist.

Imogen pulled another curl onto the curve of her breast. It looked rather odd, but Imogen’s temper was not something to risk lightly, and so Annabel held her tongue.

“I’ve made up my mind to take a cicisbeo,” Imogen said suddenly. “To hold off Beekman, if nothing else.”

“What?” Annabel said. “A what?”

“A gallant,” Imogen said impatiently. “A man to take me about.”

“You’re thinking about marrying again?” Annabel was truly surprised. To the best of her knowledge, Imogen was still dissolving into tears every night over her husband’s death.

“Never,” Imogen said. “You know that. But I don’t intend to let fools like Beekman spoil my enjoyment either.” Their eyes met in the mirror. “I’m going to take Mayne. And I’m not talking about marriage.”

“Mayne!” Annabel gasped. “You can’t!”

“Of course I can,” Imogen said, looking amused. “There’s nothing to stop me from doing anything I wish. And I believe that I would like the Earl of Mayne.”

“How can you even consider such an idea? He jilted our own sister, practically at the altar!”

“Are you implying that Tess would be better off with Mayne than with Felton? She adores her husband,” Imogen pointed out.

“Of course not. But that doesn’t change the fact that Mayne deserted her!”

“I have not forgotten that point.”

“But for goodness’ sakes, why?”

Imogen cast her a scornful glance. “You have to ask?”

“Punishment,” Annabel guessed. “Don’t do it, Imogen.”

“Why not?” Imogen turned to the side and regarded her figure. It was exquisite in every curve. And every curve was visible. “I’m bored.”

Annabel saw a glint of cruelty in her sister’s eyes and caught her arm. “Don’t do it. I’ve no doubt you can make Mayne fall in love with you.”

Imogen’s teeth shone white when she smiled. “Neither do I.”

“But you might fall in love with him as well.”


Annabel didn’t really believe Imogen would love again either. She had encased herself in ice after her husband died, and it would take time to melt away.

“Please,” she said. “Please don’t do it, Imogen. I don’t care about Mayne, but it wouldn’t be good for you.”

“Since you are nothing more than a maiden,” Imogen said with her new, bitter smile, “you have no idea what would be good for me, at least as pertains to men. We can have this discussion once you have some experience of what it means to be a woman.”

Imogen was clearly longing for a pitched battle of the kind they used to have when they were children. But as Annabel opened her mouth to deliver a scathing retort, the door opened and their chaperone, Lady Griselda Willoughby, waltzed in. “Darlings!” she trilled, “I have been looking everywhere for the two of you! The Duke of Clarence has arrived, and --”

Her words died as her eyes moved from Annabel’s furious face to Imogen’s rigid one. “Ah,” she said, sitting down and adjusting her exquisite silk shawl around her shoulders, “you’re squabbling again. How very glad I am that I have only a brother to plague me.”

“Your brother,” Imogen snapped, “is hardly anyone to desire as a family member. In fact, we were just talking of his manifold virtues. Or rather, the lack thereof.”

“I have no doubt but that your assessment was correct,” Griselda said serenely, “but it was a patently unpleasant comment, my dear. I notice that when you are angry your nose becomes quite might wish to think about that.”

Imogen’s nose flared magnificently. “Since I have no doubt but that you will wish to rebuke me as well, I might as well tell you that I have decided to take a cicisbeo!”

“An excellent decision, my dear.” Griselda opened a small fan and waved it lazily before her face. “I find men so useful. In a gown as narrow as the one you wear tonight, for example, one can hardly walk with ease. Perhaps you could choose a particularly strong man who can carry you about London.”

Annabel bit back a smile.

“You may fun all you like,” Imogen said through clenched teeth, “but let me be very clear about my decision. I have decided to take a lover, not a jumped-up version of a footman. And your brother Mayne is my primary candidate.”

“Ah,” Griselda said. “Well, likely it is wise to start with someone so very experienced in these situations. Mayne does tend toward married women rather than widows; my brother has a genius for avoiding any woman who might prove eligible for matrimony. But mayhap you can persuade him otherwise.”

“I believe that I can,” Imogen stated.

Griselda waved her fan meditatively. “An interesting choice lies ahead of you. Were I to take a lover, for example, I should wish to continue the affair beyond two weeks. My dear brother certainly has had many ladies on whom to practice, and yet he invariably drifts to another woman within the fortnight. Moreover, I myself would find the notion of being compared to the many beautiful women who had come before me unnerving, but I expect I am simply squeamish.”

Annabel grinned. Griselda looked a perfectly docile, perfectly feminine lady. And yet...

Imogen looked as if she were thinking. “Fine!” she said finally. “I’ll take the Earl of Ardmore then. Since he’s only been in London for a week or so, he can’t possibly compare me to anyone else.”

Annabel blinked. “The Scottish earl?”

“The very one.” Imogen gathered up her reticule and shawl. “He’s not worth a penny, but his face can be his fortune, in this case.” She caught her sister’s frown. “Oh, don’t be such a pinched ninny, Annabel. Believe me, the earl won’t get hurt.”

“I agree,” Griselda put in. “The man has a palpable air of danger about him. He won’t get hurt, Imogen. You will.”

“Nonsense,” Imogen said. “You’re simply trying to talk me out of a decision I’ve already made. I’m not willing to sit around in the corners, gossiping with dowagers for the next ten years.” That was a direct insult to Griselda, who had lost her husband years ago and had (to Annabel’s knowledge) never entertained a thought either of a lover or a husband.

Griselda smiled sweetly and said, “No, I can see that you’re an entirely different kind of woman, my dear.”

Annabel winced, but Imogen didn’t notice. “Now I think on it, Ardmore is an altogether better choice than Mayne. We are countrymen, you know.”

“Actually, that’s a reason not to distract him,” Annabel had to point out. “We know how hard it is to live in an old rambling house in the north country without a penny to support it. The man has come to London to find a rich bride, not to have an affair with you.”

“You’re a sentimentalist,” Imogen said. “Ardmore can take care of himself. I certainly shan’t stop him from courting some silly miss, if he wishes. But if I have a cavalier servente, the fortune hunters will leave me alone. I shall just borrow him for a while. You’re not planning to marry him, are you?”

“The thought never crossed my mind,” Annabel said with something less than perfect truth. The Scotsman was absurdly handsome; a woman would have to be in her grave not to consider him as a consort. But Annabel meant to marry a rich man. And she meant to stay in England. “Are you considering him as a possible spouse?”

“Certainly not. He’s a lummox without a fortune. But he’s pretty, and he dresses so somberly that he matches my clothing. Who could want more in a man?”

“He doesn’t appear to be a man to fool,” Griselda said, serious now.

“If he needs to find a rich wife, you ought to be straightforward,” Annabel added. “He may well think that you would consider matrimony.”

“Pish,” Imogen said. “The role of a hidebound moralist doesn’t suit either of you. Don’t be tedious.” And she swept out of the room, closing the door behind her with a little more force than necessary.

“Though it pains me to admit it,” Griselda said meditatively, “I may have mishandled that situation. If your sister is determined to make a scandal, she would have done better to direct herself toward Mayne. At this point, it is almost a rite of a passage for young women to have a brief affaire with my brother, and so the ensuing scandal doesn’t really take fire.”

“There’s something about Ardmore that makes me wonder if she can control him as easily as she thinks she can,” Annabel said with a frown.

“I would agree,” Griselda said. “I haven’t exchanged a word with the man, but he has little in common with the average English lord.”

Ardmore was a red-haired Scot, with a square jaw and broad shoulders. To Annabel’s mind, he was a world away from Griselda’s sleek brother.

“No one seems to know much about the man,” Griselda said. “Lady Ogilby told me that she had it from Mrs. Mufford that he’s poor as a church mouse and came to London specifically to find a dowried bride.”

“But didn’t Mrs. Mufford spread that rumor about Clementina Lyffe running off with a footman?”

“True,” Griselda said. “And yet Clementina is happily married to her viscount and shows no propensity whatsoever to court the household staff. Lady Blechschmidt generally can scent a fortune-hunter at fifty yards, and there was no sign of Ardmore at her soirée last night, which suggests he was not invited. I must ask her if she has any pertinent information.”

“His absence from that particular event may simply indicate a intolerance for boredom,” Annabel remarked.

“Tush!” Griselda said, laughing. “You know Lady Blechschmidt is a great acquaintance of mine. I must say, it is unusual for there to be such mystery about a man; if he were English we would know everything from his birth weight to his yearly income. Did you ever meet him when you lived in Scotland?”

“Never. But Mrs. Mufford’s speculation about his reasons for coming to London is likely true.” Many a Scottish nobleman hung around her father’s stables, and they were all as empty in the pocket as her own viscount of a father. In fact, it was practically a requirement of nationality. One either remained poor, or married a rich Englishman -- as Imogen had done, as Tess had done, and as she herself meant to do.

“Ardmore doesn’t look the sort to be fooled by your sister,” Griselda said.

Annabel hoped she was right. There was a brittleness behind Imogen’s artful exposure of her bosom that had little to do with desire.

Griselda rose. “Imogen must find her own way through her grief,” she said. “There are women who have a hard time of it, and I’m afraid she’s one of them.”

Their eldest sister, Tess, kept saying that Imogen had to live her own life. And so had Annabel.

For a moment a smile touched Annabel’s lips. The only dowry she had was a horse, so she and the Scotsman were really two of a kind.

Scottish pennies, as it were.


End of Excerpt

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Kiss Me, Annabel is available in the following formats:

Kiss Me, Annabel

ISBN: 978-0060732103
November 29, 2005

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Kiss Me, Annabel is Book 2 in the Essex Sisters series.

The full series reading order is as follows:

Book 1: Much Ado About You
Book 2: Kiss Me, Annabel
Book 3: The Taming of the Duke
Book 4: Pleasure for Pleasure
Companion Guide: Essex Sisters Companion Guide
Novella: A Gentleman Never Tells
ado_350 Kiss Me, Annabel duke_350 pleasure-new_350 Essex Sisters Companion Guide gentleman