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March 1, 2007
Available in: e-Book (reprint)
The Greatest Lover in All England
Since childhood, Rosie’s life has been the stage—passing herself off as a boy playing women’s roles in the somewhat disreputable theatrical troupe of actor Danny Plympton, Rosie’s adoptive father. But when unanticipated danger confronts them, they must flee London, taking refuge at the estate of Sir Anthony Rycliffe. A handsome, devil-may-care rakehell, Tony quickly sees through Rosie’s disguise.
But a lush, womanly form and eminently kissable lips are not the ravishing young beauty’s only secrets—and the burning attraction Tony feels for her does not lessen the peril she has brought to his doorstep. The dashing rogue is determined to strip the irresistible lady of her mysteries—and her masculine garb—using all of his fabled seductive powers. After all, Tony has a reputation to uphold, as . . .
The Greatest Lover in All England
I confess to an adoration of Elizabeth the First. She was brilliant, beautiful (or at least clever enough to make everyone think she was beautiful), and the epitome of success in a time when women were nothing more than chattels. I also adore the Elizabethan period. Court intrigue, upstart lovers, pumpkin pants … okay, not the pumpkin pants, but everything else about the era is fascinating. The success of THE GREATEST LOVER IN ALL ENGLAND proved readers thought so, too, and later movie-goers enjoyed a very similar story, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Amazingly enough, the movie came out in 1999, a full five years after THE GREATEST LOVER IN ALL ENGLAND was published!
Sir Anthony Rycliffe staggered, knocked from his passionate exploration of Lady Blanche’s full, pouting mouth by the tip of a cane jabbed into his side. Lifting his head from the kiss, he glared -- right into the eyes of the girl’s indignant father.
"I'm going to pretend I didn't see this." Lord Bothey obviously wanted to rip Tony to pieces with his bare hands for kissing the lovely Blanche, but two things stopped him -- his girth and his reluctance to offend the captain of the queen's guard. So he lifted his gaze to the treetops and signaled to his daughter to come with him, out of the gardens and back to the other aristocrats who danced in the long gallery of Odyssey Manor.
Blanche ignored her father. She smiled up at Tony and drew her tongue slowly over her lips, still wet from his kiss.
It was an invitation few men could have resisted, but Tony took the girl’s wandering hands off his shoulders and tried to straighten his ruff. "Go with your father, sweetheart. I'll see you ... later."
Her eyes glistened ever brighter from the tears that filled them, and she blinked, using her eyelashes like a señorita used a fan. "But, Tony -- "
As if she were a pet, he tapped her nose with his finger. "Later."
"But you promised -- "
He had promised her nothing, nor would he until he'd made his choice. Every one of the girls at his house party longed to be the woman in his arms, and quite a few had been. He'd been experimenting -- a kiss here, a clasp of passion there -- trying to decide which of the noblewomen would be his bride.
It wasn't the act of an honorable gentleman, but Tony prided himself on being neither honorable nor a gentleman. still smiled as he handed Blanche over to her father. "I would love to continue our discussion, sweetling, but the audience grows even as we construct our memories." He waved a broad hand at the two ladies who stood tapping their feet in the manicured grass. "My sisters await me."
Lord Bothey snatched Blanche by the arm and marched her away.
"Tony, have you run mad?" Jean asked.
He shushed Jean and waited until the lagging Blanche turned to look at him. He blew her a kiss, wiped her from his mind, and said, "If I marry Blanche, she’ll learn to keep her smiles and kisses for me. She’s too free with them."
"You won’t marry her," Jean said.
"Probably not. Her father’s only a baron, albeit a rich one, and with his personality, he’s likely to offend the queen. I can’t have that in a father-in-law."
"That’s good," said Ann, his other sister. She beamed at him from beneath heavy brown brows. "I’m glad you’re showing some sense."
"Is he?" Jean knew her brother well, and so never believed the best of him. "Is he indeed?"
Tony smiled his winsome smile.
"You should shave the beard, Tony," Jean said. "It covers your dimples and destroys that disarming look you get when you know you’re going to be scolded."
"Scolded?" He wrapped each of his diminutive sisters in a bear hug. "Why would you ladies want to scold me?"
"Because you have run mad. You've been kissing every maiden here." Jean struggled out from his clutches to shake her finger at him. "It's a scandal, and their fathers are threatening to leave."
"Because you’re causing a scandal." Ann unwrapped his arm from around her neck and skipped in front of him down the path. "No one knew why you’d invited half of the nobles in Englande here for a party, but they’re wiser now. Every family you invited has a marriageable daughter, and like a codpiece, you’re trying on every one for size."
"A crude analogy." He frowned and sounded severe, but his sisters had taught him that trick. Their dark complexions, so different from his own, as well as their serious natures, gave their frowns a sincerity he couldn’t match. Their red wigs, worn to match the queen’s, gave them a frivolous appearance their personalities didn’t match.
"You’re a crude man," Ann answered. "The parents of these maidens are frightened."
"But the maidens aren’t."
"Oh, no." Jean snorted with disgust. "They’re twittering like a flock of starlings every time you pass."
He dredged his soul for modesty, but he had never learned the art of self-deception. He had a way with women. "I’m twenty-eight. ‘Tis time I took a wife."
"We have no argument with that." Jean pushed him down onto a cold marble bench. "‘Tis the suggestion we’ve been making since you returned from the continent. And if you had done so when you returned, newly bathed in her majesty’s praise and loaded with her rewards, you could have had almost any woman in the kingdom. But Tony, that was five years ago."
He contrived to look hurt. "Is memory so short?"
"Don’t play the innocent with us." Jean’s eyes narrowed. "You’re master of the queen’s guard. Her Majesty granted you the old Sadler estate, no small plum, and all the income from that extinct family’s lands. If you would but reach out your hand, you could have any widow in the country."
He repeated the abhorrent word, but Jean paid no attention. "Instead you are offending every nobleman with a maiden daughter."
He arched his back and flexed his arms, then locked his hands behind his head. "They could leave."
Ann read the menace in his gesture. "They’re afraid of you."
His annoyance made Ann uncomfortable, he knew, so he moved over and patted the bench beside him. "Sit, sweet sister, and tell me why they should be afraid. If they left, what could I do? I’m not likely to take a sword to all of them."
With a sweet, sarcastic edge to her voice, Jean said, "Nay?"
Ann sidled over and perched on the edge, her skirt a rigid circle around her. "You have the queen’s favor."
"I am currently out of favor."
"Currently!" Jean snapped. "Temporarily is a better term. No one doubts you can sweet talk your way back into her good graces. You’ve proved yourself a dangerous man with a sword when a lord is quick with an insult."
Jean lost her temper with him. "Don’t patronize me, Tony Rycliffe. I disciplined you from the time you were a babe and I’ll discipline you now if it’ll knock some sense into you."
Tony didn’t laugh. If Jean chose to take a stick to him, he’d take the beating and not complain. He owed her so much. He owned them both so much.
Leaning back against a tree, he studied his sisters. He’d seen Jean angry often enough, and she was angry now. Her swarthy complexion flushed and glowed from the tip of her nose down to her chest. She tugged at her neck ruff as if it choked her. She’d always been his disciplinarian, and he adored her too much for her concern to trouble him.
Ann. Now, Ann wasn’t angry. She was distressed. As dark as her sister, she had brown eyes that filled easily with tears, and they were filled now. She didn’t like to see her siblings at odds, and she wrung her hands and murmured soft noises, like a pigeon with a chick.
Tony could resist neither Ann’s distress nor Jean’s anger. Perhaps he owed them an explanation, an outline of his grand scheme. "I want to start a noble dynasty."
Ann laid her gloved hand on his arm. "You’re part of a noble dynasty."
Picking up her hand, he stripped the glove away and examined her fingers. Not a callus, not a mark to show she had ever done a day’s work. And she hadn’t, of course. She didn’t understand, and for her he bridled his impatience. "It’s not my dynasty. It bears the name of my father and my brother."
"But you’re my brother, too," Ann wailed.
"For that I thank you. And you." He nodded at Jean, who understood him so much better than the gentle Ann. "And my father and my brother. But found the Rycliffe dynasty I will, and for that I must take a maiden to wife. A young maiden with money and noble connections."
"But a maiden has a father who will decide her fate, and no father …" Ann groped for words.
"Will have me?" Tony concluded.
Embarrassed, Ann looked down at their entwined hands, but Jean rallied. "You’ve gained a reputation for fighting good noblemen and seducing good noble wives -- "
"And I’m a bastard son."
" -- and if it weren’t for Elizabeth’s favor, you’d have been assassinated years ago."
"And I’m a bastard son," he insisted.
"That is perhaps the reason." Jean surveyed him, as stiff and pale as if the chill marble had penetrated his bones. "But feeling as you do about your legitimacy, you must understand the fathers’ objections."
"Oh, I do." He stood and grinned, showing all his white teeth. "I just don’t care." He didn’t care about the objections, because no one dared make them to his face. Jean was right. In the last five years, he had taken a sword to every nobleman who had dared to mention the circumstances of his birth.
"Why do you need a maiden? Are you afraid your bedroom technique might not bear comparison?"
The bright orange and yellow leaves quivered and clung beneath the blast of his laughter. "Nay, for if you'll remember, Father always said I had a natural seat."
Anne tittered. "He was talking about your horsemanship."
"One skill is much the same as another, and I’ll keep my wife besotted with me until the day she dies."
"While you find your pleasure where you will?" Jean snapped.
His amusement died a painful death. "Nay to that, also. I’ll make no bastards for my wife to care for."
"Mama didn’t mind," Ann assured him.
"Your mother was a lovely woman," he said. "She gave me no less love than she gave her own children. I thought she was my real mother. She should have been my real mother."
The memory of their mother brought tears to Ann’s face and sent Jean searching for her handkerchief.
He gave them a moment, then explained, "I’ll have a maiden who has no children nor other entanglements and who’s young enough -- not more than seventeen -- to bear me many babes. I must have a fecund woman for breeding purposes, and it’s well-known that young mares throw more colts."
Ann struggled to stand, wrestling with her heavy farthingale, and when he would have helped her, she knocked his hand aside. On her feet, she said, "A young mare would perfectly suit you, Tony, for you are a nothing but a horse’s ass."
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