John Parker-Roth cannot believe that marriage is necessary for his happiness. He would far rather pursue his interest in horticulture, but if one day he should find a female who shared his passion for flowers—a level-headed, calm sort of female—he might reconsider. Certainly the lovely young woman who has just tumbled into his lap will not do, as she possesses neither of these admirable qualities. Yet Miss Margaret Peterson does have many things in her favor. To begin with, she is a true English rose, blushing a delectable pink. And she is not entirely clothed. Her full mouth begs to be kissed. If only she would not wriggle so…oh, dear. He cannot ignore the sudden vision of her in his bed, but he must.
What? Is Meg actually asking him to kiss her? Well, well, well. John Parker-Roth is a gentleman, first and foremost. And he cannot turn down a lady’s request…
Finalist 2009 Booksellers Best Award, Short Historical
~John Charles, ALA Booklist
"With all the important ingredients of the traditional regency genre along with the effective interweaving of the romances in the lives of the secondary characters, this is a humourous and spirited miscommunications romance you won't want to miss!"
~Audrey Lawrence, Fresh Fiction
"Hilarity reigns as a queen of love and laughter crafts another "naked" book designed to keep you smiling. This delicious romance blends MacKenzie's hallmark humor with a cast of unforgettable characters and loads of sensuality."
~Kathe Robin, Romantic Times BOOKreviews
"Author Sally MacKenzie spins another sexy and laugh-out-loud funny story of manners battling with libido set in Regency England...If you're looking for a sexy and breezy regency-era romance, do yourself a favor and check out THE NAKED GENTLEMAN."
"What a great series! Funny, spicy, and romantic."
~Jane Bowers, Romance Reviews Today
"...the laughs roll off the pages...a hilarious tale..."
~Katie, Fallen Angels Reviews
"I laughed, I cried, and I enjoyed every moment of this fabulous love story."
~Scarlet, Romance Junkies
"...will have many readers cheering with the story sizzling and unfolding at a fast pace."
~Connie, Once Upon A Romance
Viscount Bennington was a terrible kisser.
Meg repressed a sigh. What a pity. She had been willing to overlook his receding hairline, large nose, and frequent petulance, but this was too much. How could she wed a man whose lips felt like two fat slugs? They were trailing wetly over her cheek toward her right ear at the moment.
She should strike him from her list of potential suitors.
Still, he did have one of the largest plant collections in England. She would dearly love to have daily access to all that botanical wealth.
The slugs had diverted to her jaw.
How important could kissing be? Only a small portion of one’s married life was devoted to the amatory arts, after all. Chances were Viscount Bennington had a mistress or two. He’d only look to her for an heir. Once that task was accomplished, he would leave her alone.
She could do it. More than one woman had suffered through the activities of the marriage bed by lying still and thinking of England. She’d spend the time mentally cataloguing Bennington’s vast gardens.
His lips wandered to a spot behind her ear. She would need a handkerchief to dry her face when he was finished slobbering over her.
She drew in a deep breath, but stopped when her lungs were only half full.
He smelled. The odor was quite pronounced at these close quarters. Thankfully he was only a few inches taller than she, so she did not have her nose squashed against his waistcoat.
And he should have a word with his valet about the state of his linen. There was a thin line of dirt on his collar and cravat.
Eww! He’d stuck his tongue in her ear.
That did it. He could own the Garden of Eden and she would still have to eliminate him from her list of possible husbands.
“My lord!” She shoved against his thin chest.
“Hmm?” His mouth moved down to the base of her neck and fastened there, just like a leech.
“Lord Bennington, please.” She shoved again. None of the other men she’d taken into the shrubbery had been this bold. “You must stop...eep!”
His hands had slid down to her hips. He pulled her tight against him. She felt an ominous bulge in his pantaloons.
She shoved harder. She might as well be pushing against a stone wall. Who would have guessed such a short, scraggy man would be so immoveable?
“My lord, you are making me uncomfortable.”
He pressed his bulge more tightly against her. “And you are making me uncomfortable, sweetings.” His voice was oddly thick. His mouth returned to her skin. He nipped her shoulder.
“Ouch! Stop that.”
The man was a viscount. A gentleman. Surely he would not do anything untoward in Lord Palmerson’s garden, just yards away from a crowded ballroom?
He was not stopping. Now he was licking the place he had bitten. Disgusting.
“My lord, return me to Lady Beatrice this instant!”
He grunted and returned his mouth to her throat.
Should she scream? Would anyone hear her over the music? If she waited for the quiet between sets.... Perhaps another couple had chosen to stroll in the cool night air and would come to her assistance.
Lord Bennington nuzzled her ear. “Don’t be alarmed, Miss Peterson. My intentions are completely honorable.”
“Honorable? I--” Meg paused. “Honorable as in marriage honorable?”
“Of course. What did you think?”
What did she think? Yes, he was somewhat revolting, but should a little dirt and slobber really eliminate him from matrimonial consideration? This was her goal, to be wed or engaged before the Season ended. The Season was barely a month under way and here she was already on the verge of a respectable--no, a brilliant--offer. A vicar’s daughter nabbing a viscount? The society gossips would have their tongues working overtime to spread the news.
He did have all those lovely plants. A greenhouse and garden in London and acres of vegetation in Devon.
Really, how many times would she have to put up with his attentions if she married him? Papa and Harriet were extremely attached to each other, and her sister and her friend Lizzie spent a great deal of time with their husbands, but most married couples of the ton barely saw each other. If she were lucky, she would conceive quickly, maybe even on her wedding night. Then she and Bennington could go their separate ways.
She could endure a few moments of inconvenience to get the key to his greenhouse, couldn’t she? There was no one else who had such a wealth of plants. Well, no one but Parks--Mr. Parker-Roth—and he clearly wasn’t interested in marrying her.
She moistened her lips. Could she say yes? It was past time she wed. She wanted a home of her own. A garden. Children.
Children with Lord Bennington’s overwhelming nose?
“My lord, I don’t....”
“Come, Miss Peterson. You won’t get another offer. Surely you know that.”
“Lord Bennington!” He might be a viscount, but that did not give him license to be insulting.
“The other men haven’t mentioned marriage, have they?”
“The other men?” Had he noticed her excursions into the shrubbery? Surely not. She’d been very discreet. “I’m not certain what you mean. I thought since we share an interest in horticulture, touring Lord Palmerson’s garden with you would be stimulating.”
He chuckled and flexed his hips. His annoying bulge dug into her. “Very stimulating.”
Something was definitely stimulated. Who would have thought such a short man would have such a large, um....
“At this rate, you are more apt to lose your reputation than win a husband, Miss Peterson. Men talk, you know.”
It was a very good thing the garden was dark. Meg felt her cheeks burning. Surely he didn’t think...?
“Lord Bennington, I assure you--”
“Oh, I know you haven’t done anything but exchange a few kisses. Lord Farley said you were quite untutored. Thought he might have been your first. Was he?”
“Lord Bennington! Please. I would like to return to the ballroom now.”
“I imagine at your advanced age you are a little curious.” He laughed. “Probably a little desperate, too.”
“My lord, I am only twenty-one.”
“Right. Well past the age when you might expect to grab a husband, hmm?”
“Not at all.”
“Come now, Margaret. I may call you Margaret, mayn’t I? I believe we’re sufficiently acquainted to dispense with the proprieties.”
His left hand landed on her bodice.
She grabbed his wrist. Somehow he had managed to shed his gloves. “No, we are definitely not sufficiently acquainted.”
“You are just suffering from maidenly fears, sweetings.” His fingers brushed across the tops of her breasts.
“Call me ‘Bennie.’ All my intimates do.”
“I couldn’t possibly. Remove your hand this instant.”
He moved it to her shoulder.
“I’m thirty-six. It’s time I thought of getting an heir. Your family is respectable. Your father is connected to the Earl of Landsdowne, isn’t he?”
“He is Lord Landsdowne’s uncle, but the earl doesn’t concern himself with us.” She looked through the leaves toward the beckoning light. Did she see movement in the shadows? She hoped someone was nearby to assist her if necessary.
The viscount’s fingers stroked her skin. She clenched her teeth.
“But your sister is the Marchioness of Knightsdale. I’m certain she concerns herself with you. Didn’t she raise you after your mother died?”
“Yes. The ballroom, my lord. It is past time we returned.” His palm was unpleasantly damp.
“And the Countess of Westbrooke is your good friend.”
“Yes, yes.” Had the man made a study of all her connections? “The ballroom, Lord Bennington. Please escort me back to the ballroom. If you wish to discuss my family further, we can do so there.”
“And both the earl and the marquis are close friends of the Duke of Alvord--in fact, the earl is the duchess’s cousin.”
“I would like to be connected to all that power and wealth. Any one of those men could finance an expedition to the jungles of South America without a second thought.”
“Jungles? South America?” Had the man lost his mind?
“I want to send my own men out to find exotic plants, Margaret.”
“I see.” She would like to do that, too, but it was clearly impossible. “An expedition such as you are describing is very expensive. Mr. Parker-Roth was telling me--”
Bennington’s hand tightened on her shoulder.
“My lord, you are hurting me.”
“You know Parker-Roth?”
“Slightly. I met him at a house party last year.” Meg shifted position. “Please, Lord Bennington, you will leave a bruise.”
He loosened his fingers. “My pardon. I just cannot abide the man. He’s a neighbor of mine. Spends most of his time in the country.”
“Ah.” So that was why she hadn’t seen him in Town--not that she’d been looking, of course.
“It’s disgusting the way everyone fawns over him when he does attend a Horticultural Society meeting. He has plenty of money--he sends his brother all over the globe looking for plant specimens.”
“I see.” Lord Bennington’s hold on her had slackened. Would he let her go now? “Shall we return to the ballroom, my lord?”
“But you haven’t given me your answer.”
“Yes. Will you marry me or not?”
Lord Bennington was frowning at her, all signs of passion gone. She found it quite easy to make up her mind.
“I am very sorry, my lord. I am fully aware of the great honor you do me, but I believe we would not suit.”
The frown deepened.
“What do you mean, we would not suit?”
“We would not...suit.” What did the man want her to say? That she thought he was a hideous oaf and she had made a huge error in judgment even speaking to him?
“You brought me into this dark garden and yet you are turning down my offer?”
“I really did not expect an offer of marriage, my lord.”
“What kind of an offer did you expect? Are you looking for a slip on the shoulder, then?”
“My lord! Of course not. I was not expecting an offer now. I mean, I was not expecting an offer of anything--any offer at all. I just wished to take a turn about the garden.”
“Miss Peterson, I was not born yesterday. You lured me into this darkened corner for a reason. Was it just to steal a kiss? Are you that starved for amorous activity?”
“Lord Bennington!” Had the man actually said “amorous” with regard to her?
“You are not going to use me to satisfy your urges.”
Urges! Her only urge was to get back to the light and sanity of the ballroom.
The viscount was becoming markedly agitated. She really had not anticipated such a reaction. The other men had been completely amiable when she’d suggested they go back inside. Lord Bennington was almost hissing.
“You chose to come into the garden with me, so now you’ll pay the price. When I’m finished with you, your wealthy relatives and friends will beg me to wed you.”
“Lord Bennington, be reasonable. You are a gentleman.”
“I am a man, Miss Peterson. Surely your sister has warned you it is highly unwise to be alone with a man in an isolated place.”
Emma had warned her of many things--perhaps she should have listened to this particular lecture. At least she would be spared Emma’s jobation this time--her sister was safely ensconced in Kent with her children. If she could just get away from Bennington, all would be well. She had learned her lesson. She would not be visiting any shadowy shrubbery again.
The viscount stuck his hands into her coiffure, sending pins flying everywhere. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders.
“Lord Bennington, stop immediately!”
He grunted. He had his hands on her bodice again. She jerked her knee up, but she missed her target.
“Playing that game, are you?”
“My lord, I will scream.”
“Please do. The scandal will be delightful. How much do you suppose the marquis will pay to keep it quiet?”
“Oh, Miss Peterson, you are naïve.”
He mashed his mouth on hers, parting her lips. His tongue slithered between her teeth like a snake, threatening to choke her. She did the only thing she could think of.
She bit down hard.
* * * * *
John Parker-Roth--Parks to his friends and acquaintances--stepped out of the heat and noise of Lord Palmerson’s ballroom into the cool quiet of the garden.
Thank God. He could still smell the stench of London, but at least he wasn’t choking any longer on the foul mix of perfume, hair oil, stale breath, and sweat that permeated the air inside. Why his mother wanted to subject herself to that crush of humanity was beyond him.
He chose a path at random. Palmerson’s garden was large for Town. If he could ignore the cacophony of music and conversation spilling out of the house and the general clamor from the street, he could almost imagine he was back in the country.
Almost. Damn. Had the plants Stephen sent arrived yet? He should be home to receive them. If they’d traveled all the way from South America to die waiting to be unpacked at the Priory.... It didn’t bear thinking of.
Would MacGill follow his instructions exactly? He’d written them down in detail and gone over each point with the man, but the pigheaded Scot always thought he knew best. All right, usually he did. MacGill was a bloody fine head gardener, but still, these plants required careful handling.
He wanted to be there himself. Why had his mother insisted on dragging him to Town now?
He blew out a pent up breath. He knew why--the blasted Season. She said it was to get more painting supplies and to catch up with her artist friends, but she didn’t fool him. She wanted him wed.
He’d heard Palmerson had a good specimen of Magnolia grandiflora. He’d see if he could find it. With luck it would be in the farthest, darkest corner of the garden. He wouldn’t put it past his mother to come out here looking for him, dragging her latest candidate for his hand behind her.
Why the hell couldn’t she accept the fact he did not want to marry? He’d told her time after time. Was it such a hard message to understand?
Apparently it was. He grimaced. Now she sighed and got that worried frown every time she looked at him.
He batted aside a drooping vine. The fact of the matter was there was no need for him to marry. He didn’t have a title to pass on. The Priory could go to Stephen or Nicholas, if Father didn’t outlive them all. He was very happy with his life. He had his work--his plants and his gardens. He had an accommodating widow in the village, not that he visited her much anymore. Frankly, he’d rather be working in his rose beds than Cat’s bed. The roses were less trouble.
No, a wife would just be an annoyance.
Damn it, was that rustling in the shrubbery? That would make this evening complete--stumbling over some amorous couple in the bushes. He veered away from the suspect vegetation.
The problem was Mother firmly believed marriage was necessary for male contentment. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. God give him patience. Didn’t she ever open her eyes and look around the bloody ballrooms she’d been dragging him to? She might be happily married, and Father might be content, but most husbands and wives were not.
He had no interest in stepping into parson’s mousetrap. Maybe if Grace had--
No. He would not entertain such a ridiculous notion. He’d decided that years ago. Grace had made her choice, and she was happy. Last he’d heard, she had two children. She’d been in the ballroom just now. He’d seen her laughing up at her husband at the end of the last set.
The noise from the bushes was getting louder. Wonderful. Were the lovers having a spat? That was the last thing he wanted to witness. He would just--
Good God, that was Bennington’s voice. The man had the devil’s own temper. Surely he wouldn’t--
“My lord, please.” The girl’s voice held a thread of fear. “You are hurting me.”
He strode forward without another thought.
* * * * *
She must not panic. Bennington was a gentleman.
He looked like a monster. He stared at her through narrowed eyes, nostrils flaring, jaw hardened. His hands gripped her upper arms. She was certain his fingers would leave bruises.
“My lord, please.” She moistened her lips. Fear made it hard to get her breath. He was so much stronger than she, and the garden was so dark.
He was a viscount, a peer, a gentleman. He wouldn’t really harm her, would he?
She had never seen a man so angry.
“You are hurting me.”
“Hurting you? Ha! I’ll show you hurting.”
He shook her so her head flopped on her neck like a rag doll’s, then he yanked her bodice down, tearing the fabric. He grabbed her breast and squeezed. The pain was excruciating.
“Bite me, will you? How would you like me to bite your--”
A well-tailored forearm appeared at his throat.
He made a gagging sound, releasing her to claw at the black silk sleeve cutting across his neck.
“You bastard.” Mr. Parker-Roth jerked Lord Bennington back, spun the viscount around, and slammed his fist into the man’s jaw, sending him backward into a holly bush. Meg would have cheered if she hadn’t been trying so hard not to cry. She pulled up her bodice and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Parker-Roth.” Bennington spat out the name along with some blood as he extracted himself from the prickly vegetation. “What the hell is the matter with you? The lady invited me into the garden.”
“I’m certain she didn’t invite you to maul her.”
“A woman who goes off alone with a man...”
“...is not asking to be raped, Bennington.”
The viscount opened his mouth, then closed it abruptly. His jaw was beginning to swell and he had blood on his cravat. “I wasn’t going to...I wouldn’t, of course...I merely lost my temper.” He glanced at Meg. “My humble apologies, Miss Peterson. I will do the proper thing, of course, and speak to your brother-in-law in the morning, then travel down to Kent to see your father.”
“No!” She swallowed and took a deep breath. She spoke slowly and distinctly, “I will not marry you. I would not marry you even if you were the last man in England--no, the last man in all the world.”
“You heard Miss Peterson, Bennington. I believe she was quite clear as to her sentiments. Now do the proper thing and take yourself off.”
“I will be happy to assist you in finding the back gate--in fact I would be delighted to kick your miserable arse out into the alley.”
“Please, Lord Bennington, I assure you there is nothing you can say to persuade me to entertain your suit.”
“You are merely overset. I was too impassioned, perhaps.”
“Perhaps?” She pressed her lips together. She would not have a fit of the vapors here in Lord Palmerson’s garden.
He frowned at her, and then sketched a small bow. “Very well, I will leave since you insist.” He turned, then paused. “I do apologize most sincerely.”
Meg nodded. He did sound contrite, but she just wanted him gone. She closed her eyes, listening to his steps fade away. She could not bear to look at the man still standing beside her.
Why had Parks been the one to find her in such an embarrassing situation? What must he think of her?
Perhaps he would just go away and let her expire in solitude.
She felt a gentle touch on her cheek.
“Miss Peterson, are you all right?”
She shook her head.
“I’m so sorry you had to endure Bennington’s attentions. You shouldn’t have.... Well, he is not the sort of man you should.... He has a terrible temper.”
That was supremely evident.
“You can’t go back to the ballroom like this. Who is your chaperone?”
She forced herself to speak. “Lady Beatrice.”
“I shall fetch her. Will you be all right alone?”
“Y-yes.” She bit her lip. She would not cry--well, not until he left.
He made an odd noise, a short exhalation that sounded both annoyed and resigned.
“Oh, for God’s sake, come here.”
His hands touched her shoulders, urging her gently toward him. She resisted for only a heartbeat.
The first sob escaped as her face touched his waistcoat. She felt his arms, warm and secure, come around her, felt his hand lightly touch her hair. A tight knot in her chest loosened.
She sobbed harder.
Parks repressed a sigh. The girl was Miss Margaret Peterson--Meg, Westbrooke had called her. He’d met her at Tynweith’s house party last spring. He’d liked her. She’d seemed quite levelheaded--very knowledgeable about garden design and plants in general. He’d enjoyed talking to her.
And looking at her.
All right, he had enjoyed looking at her. She was very attractive. Slim, but with generous curves in all the right places. Warm brown eyes with flecks of gold and green. Silky brown hair.
He tangled his fingers in that hair, massaging the back of her head. She felt very nice in his arms. It had been too long since he’d held a woman.
Much too long, if he was feeling amorous urges toward a lady who was blubbering all over his cravat. He would pay Cat a visit as soon as he got back to the Priory, right after he checked on that plant shipment.
He patted her shoulder. Her skin was so smooth, soft...
He dropped his hand to the safety of her corseted back.
What had she been thinking, coming out into Palmerson’s dark garden with a man of Bennington’s stamp? Was she no better than she should be? She had been a guest at Tynweith’s scandalous house party.
And had behaved perfectly properly there. She had gone into the garden with him, but always in the daylight and always to discuss a particular planting.
She made a peculiar little sound, a cross between a sniff and a hiccup.
“Are you all right, Miss Peterson?”
She nodded, keeping her head down.
“Here--take my handkerchief.”
She still would not meet his eyes.
He studied her. There was enough light to see one slender white shoulder was completely exposed, as was the lovely curve of her breast....
He moved his hips back to save her the shock of his sudden attraction.
Damn, he had definitely been too long without a woman.
“I’m sorry to be such a watering pot. I’ve thoroughly soaked your clothing.”
“You’ve had an upsetting experience.” He cleared his throat. “You do know you shouldn’t be alone with a man in the darkened shrubbery, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course.” She stepped a little away from him. “None of the others so forgot themselves.”
“Others? There have been others?”
Meg flushed. Parks looked so shocked.
“I’m not a debutante.”
“No, but you are young and unmarried.”
“Not so young. I’m twenty-one.”
Parks lifted an eyebrow. Meg felt a spurt of annoyance. Was the man criticizing her?
“Lady Beatrice has not commented on my behavior.”
He lifted the eyebrow higher. Suddenly she wanted to grab his spectacles and grind them under her slipper. She was so tired of people looking at her in just that way.
“Ohh, you are as bad as the rest of the priggish, nasty beasts in that ballroom.”
She spun on her heel, took a step--and caught her foot on a root.
“Aaa!” She was falling face first toward the holly bush Bennington had recently vacated.
Strong hands grabbed her and hauled her up against a rock hard chest. She shivered. The cool night air raised goose bumps on her arms and...
She looked down. Her breasts had fallen completely out of her dress.
“What’s the matter?”
“Close your eyes!”
Oh, lud, was that the crunch of shoes on gravel? Someone was coming this way! She had to hide.
There was no place to hide. She twisted around and plastered herself up against Parks. Perhaps God would work a miracle and make her invisible.
The Almighty was not interested in assisting her this evening.
“Halooo! Mr. Parker-Roth...is that you? I didn’t know you were in Town.”
“Ooo.” Meg muffled her moan in Parks’s cravat. It couldn’t be.... Please, not Lady Dunlee, London’s biggest gossip!
She felt Parks’s arms tighten around her. His response rumbled under her cheek.
“I’ve recently arrived, Lady Dunlee. Good evening, my lord.”
“Good evening, Parker-Roth. We were just taking a turn in the garden, but, um....” Lord Dunlee cleared his throat. “I, um, believe it’s time we returned to the ballroom.”
“Just a minute.” Lady Dunlee’s voice was sharp. “Who’s that with you in the shrubbery, sir? I can’t see.”
“My dear, I think we interrupt the gentleman.”
Lady Dunlee snorted. “Obviously. The question is, what exactly are we interrupting?”
Meg closed her eyes. She was going to die of embarrassment.
“That’s Miss Peterson, isn’t it? My word, I had no idea you two were quite so...friendly.”
Copyright © 2008 by Sally MacKenzie