July 27, 2012 - Excerpt Five - Day Five
Today we conclude this week's Special Edition Romance Previews featuring SWEET ENEMY by Heather Snow.
Let's set the stage for today's excerpt:
After a broken carriage wheel makes them her for the opening of the house party, Liliana is finally ready to meet the Wentworth family, who she suspects murdered her father…
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Learn More about Sweet Enemy
Geoffrey Wentworth, a war hero and rising political star, never wanted to be the Earl, but when his brother dies, he knows his duty--take up the responsibility for his family's estates. His mother's definition of duty differs from his, however, and can be summed up in one word--heirs. When Geoffrey rushes home to answer her urgent summons, he finds himself host to a house full of women, all vying to become the next Countess of Stratford. But his love is Parliament, where he wields his influence and reputation to better the lives of ex-soldiers, until a tempting houseguest and a secret from his past threaten his freedom...and his heart.
Liliana believes the best way to get the answers she needs is to keep her enemy close, though romance is not part of her formula. But it only takes one kiss to start a reaction she can't control...
Liliana Claremont, a brilliant chemist, doesn't want to be any man's wife, much less a countess. If she had tuppence for every time she'd been told her place was filling the nursery, not experimenting in the laboratory, she could buy the Tower Bridge. However, when she receives a coveted invitation to the Earl's house party, she trades in her beakers for ball gowns and gladly takes on the guise of husband hunter--for the chance to uncover what the Earl had to do with the murder of her father.
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“It is as I feared. We’ve missed the reception line,” Aunt Eliza grumbled as the trio pushed their way into the crowded salon. Guests milled about in stylish clusters. The assembly, more female than male in number, certainly seemed energized. Bright faces and even wider smiles abounded. And why not? One of London’s most eligible bachelors stood on the marriage block.
Aunt raised her voice over the din. “Some other girl has probably already caught the earl’s eye,” she groused, stopping just inside the door. She craned her neck in a frustrated half circle. “I can’t see Stratford, but judging by the collection of women near the back corner, I’d say he’s holding court somewhere in that vicinity.” She nodded her head in the direction where, indeed, a small crowd had gathered. “Come.”
Liliana followed her aunt and cousin, turning this way and that as they squeezed between rustling skirts of taffeta and silk. Cloying perfumes—a hodgepodge of orange blossom, tuberose, jasmine and plumeria to name but a few—assaulted her nose. The diverse scents proved quite unappetizing when mingled in the same room. The overly sweet haze wafting from dozens of husband hunters only increased the churning in Liliana’s stomach, and she quickened her step, anxious to get her first meeting with the Wentworth family over with.
Though taller than most, Liliana struggled to see over elaborate coiffures and plumed headwear. The slow trudge reminded her of one of her earliest experiments. When she was seven, she’d decided to find out how quickly snails could move. She’d meticulously observed and recorded the progress of six different specimens. They’d averaged four inches every seven minutes. Liliana shook her head as her party inched forward. Those snails would have reached the Earl of Stratford before she would.
She strained to get a glimpse of her adversary amongst the glittering masses.
“—more handsome than his brother, don’t you think?” an older woman in the crush was saying to her daughter. Liliana turned her head, drawn to any snippet of information she could collect.
“Wellington himself has said Stratford exemplifies the best of English courage—”
“—almost died saving another man’s life,” came a whisper.
“How heroic,” said another woman with a dramatic sigh.
Heroic. Liliana frowned. The word contradicted her expectations of the man—though she had, of course, heard tales of his bravery.
“Sure, he ruffled a few feathers with that poverty relief bill he championed last season, but all great men have their crusades. He’ll step in line, with the right woman’s influen—”
Aunt Eliza tugged Liliana forward before she could hear any more.
These women talked about Stratford like he was some sort of paragon.
Liliana firmed her jaw. Well, maybe he was. But hero, saint or crusader for the masses—it mattered not. She would discover what had really happened to her father, even if she had to ruin Stratford to do it.
“At last,” Aunt Eliza said as they came to the pastel-clad barricade surrounding the earl. Not to be denied, she dug a discreet elbow in here and there until she broke through, Penelope and Liliana in tow. Liliana drew in a lungful of air and braced herself.
“Lady Belsham, you’ve arrived.” A woman, presumably the countess, stepped forward to greet them. Her smile was that of an accomplished hostess, though not a particularly warm one. The countess was flanked by two men of remarkably similar appearance. As one of the men looked obviously older, Liliana assumed the gentleman to be an uncle.
Her eyes fixed upon Stratford. He stood mere feet away, tall, rigid and oddly detached, as if his mind were elsewhere. Black hair complemented winged brows of the same hue. An aquiline nose lay above long, full lips that Lothario himself would envy.
Stratford devastated her senses—she, who was normally very much inured to the physicality of men. The realization shook Liliana. Air expanded in her lungs, relieving the tightness but doing little to calm the unusual tension that thrummed through her limbs.
She lowered her lashes. It wouldn’t do to be caught staring, though the desire to observe the Wentworths’ faces nearly overwhelmed her. Could you see guilt in someone’s eyes? And if so, how did you quantify it?
Liliana kept her head politely bowed through the tale of their broken carriage wheel. But her breath shortened and her nerves tingled. Gooseflesh prickled her arms as an urge to flee swept over her like a frigid breeze. She curled her toes to keep them firmly planted.
When she looked up again, Stratford’s attention was on Penelope’s introduction, giving Liliana an opportunity to settle herself. She couldn’t say what she’d expected upon finally meeting the earl, but certainly not this riot of indefinable awareness. She drew another deep breath. All she had to do was get through the moment and she’d feel normal again.
“And may I present my niece, Miss Claremont?” Aunt Eliza said, touching Liliana’s elbow.
Stratford’s gaze moved to her, and he stiffened. She’d never seen eyes so sharp, so blue. His eyes narrowed and focused intently upon her.
Liliana’s heart thumped—hard—then skipped a beat. Claremont was a common enough name. So why was he looking at her so? Unless her arrival alarmed him because he knew whose daughter she was and guessed why she’d come . . . Unease rolled like waves through her.
She affected a small curtsy, as much to compose herself as because his rank dictated. But as her eyes dipped, she noticed the signet ring on Stratford’s pinky and her resolve solidified. The Stratford seal was emblazoned on the ring, only inches from her. She was this close to learning the truth. She straightened, snapping her gaze back to the earl.
The man’s expression smoothed to one she could not fathom. “Miss Claremont,” he acknowledged with a slight bow, his voice deeper, rougher than it had been when he’d conversed with Aunt or Penelope.
Lady Stratford’s mouth creased into a frown. And didn’t the uncle’s eyes widen, just slightly?
A hot flush spread over Liliana’s face and neck. Stratford and his family had reacted to her name . . . she was sure of it.
The dinner gong sounded, the reverberating clang startling Liliana. She automatically looked toward the noise. When she turned back, all three Wentworths wore polite, benign smiles. And then they were gone, leading the assembly into the dining room.
Liliana stood still, immobilized by a surreal uncertainty quite unlike her. Had she imagined their responses because she’d expected to see something?
She stared after their retreating forms. Lady Stratford whispered something to her son. Liliana noticed his frown in profile, and her suspicion deepened.
No. If her hosts had nothing to hide, then she would find nothing. If they were guilty, however, she owed it to her father to bring the truth to light.
The question was, if she discovered something of an incriminating nature, to what lengths would the powerful Earl of Stratford go to silence her?