Appearances are supposed to be deceiving.
—The School of Gallantry
The Season 1819
Unlike most hot-blooded twenty-year-old males in his upper circle, Viscount Alexander William Baxendale, the future earl of Hawksford, was still a virgin.
Of course, no one, not even God Himself, knew about it.
While he exuded a form of male bravado no rake could compete with, the very thought of being seen naked by any woman, even a well-paid prostitute, sent him into a panic, because he loved to eat and…it showed. He had never enjoyed looking at his body, so why would he make some poor woman suffer through it?
While many of his colleagues openly grouched about being unable to understand women and what they wanted out of a man, he had plenty of insight into the female mind. It wasn’t by choice. He had a nursery full of sisters and his rambunctious mother had a tendency to reveal far too much on every subject, including the monthly menses.
Lack of brothers aside, his life was a charmed one and he knew it. He drove the latest black lacquered barouche model upholstered in smoke grey and had his own billiard room that housed sideboards filled to the wood with expensive snuff, cognac and brandy. His clothes were tailored by French garment makers few in London could afford and his knee-high leather boots had a glorious polish that once drew a compliment from King William himself. Aside from women showing very little interest in him, Alex loved his life. He went to parties almost every night and had countless friends who made him feel debonair and all knowing.
He only ever struggled with one thing: food.
After his weight had soared to a full fourteen stone by the time he was fifteen, his mother decided to control his outrageous portions. He grudgingly agreed. For breakfast, he condemned himself to eat half a cup of porridge without any jam. His mid-day meal consisted of one measly slice of meat with too many vegetables, and for supper, he restricted himself to one bowl of soup and an apple.
By the end of the day, he was starving. At night, he would sneak into the kitchen and eat all the things he wasn’t allowed to eat during the day. Guilt eventually choked him when his mother grew baffled as to why he never lost any weight.
While at Eton, he enthusiastically took up boxing, and had become quite good at it, putting the fear of blood into anyone who went up against him, but it wasn’t enough to battle the bulk of his physique. His instructor insisted he needed to box every day for at least two hours. He preferred to drink a tankard of ale with his friends.
Though he looked up to his father who had been popular since 1782, the old earl’s way of bonding with him was hauling Alexander to wild house parties where people were too drunk to be interesting. One woman was so inebriated, she slurred on about how her husband was well known for dueling men who so much as looked at her. He offered her polite conversation in the corridor up until she knelt before him and tried to suck his cock.
He’d never ran so fast. It was yet another reason why he was still a virgin. He wasn’t about to settle for a woman who was as desperate as he was.
He was, however, getting incredibly restless.
He wanted a woman in his life.
Shifting his sizable weight against the upholstered seat of his barouche, Alexander kept reading his book on the history of the military while his mother shopped. Shoving another chocolate roll into his mouth from the box he had purchased twenty minutes earlier, he chewed in between words and eventually patted his way toward the box again, to retrieve another chocolate roll.
His fingers touched the bottom of an empty carton. Realizing he had eaten all fourteen in less than twenty minutes, he glanced down at his protruding belly no waistcoat could hide and groaned. His boxing instructor was going to look at him and know.
He should have never bought them. Slapping the lid back on the empty box in annoyance, he shoved it in between the upholstered cushion of the seat so his mother wouldn’t see it and yanked his gloves back on.
He stared at the book he was holding, tapping it against his knee. Having grown tired of reading, Alexander tossed his book on the seat and flung the side door of the barouche open. “I will be inside, Brentwood!” he called to his driver.
Someone needed to hurry his mother along. The woman owned sixty-three bonnets that barely fit into boxes and yet here she was shopping for more. He was fairly certain his lack of control stemmed from his mother. Hats. Chocolates. It was all the same.
Trudging his way into the crowded shop, he had no trouble locating his mother who wore a luminous yellow morning gown with massive skirts. She was being fitted into several expensive bonnets by a pretty young woman in a plain calico gown whose hair was so black it looked painted.
Unlike the rest of the shop assistants, who had fussily bundled their hair up tightly with pins, she wore hers in a soft, messy chignon. Several long tendrils had been purposefully teased out, caressing the nape of her pale neck. She was gloriously petite, barely reaching his shoulder, and wore a touch of rouge that highlighted her cheeks with a subtle pink that whispered of the sun kissing it.
She was so beautiful. Looking at her brought an ache to his chest.
“It suits you incredibly well, Lady Hawksford,” the young woman gushed. “The color of that green ribbon brings out the depth of your eyes.”
His mother, who loved a good compliment, adjusted the hat atop her head, looking toward the full length mirror set against the far wall. “It does, doesn’t it?” She squinted at her reflection, assessing the sizable bonnet. “Perhaps it could do with a bit more lace. Are there any new shipments?”
The young woman perked. “As a matter of fact, yes. We received several from France a few days ago. Allow me to fetch samples for you.” She bustled around the mahogany counter toward Alexander and halfway toward him paused. Dark, playful eyes captured his. “Good afternoon, sir. How are you this fine day?”
His breath hitched. She held his gaze and spoke to him as if he were worth the compliment. She had even stopped as if she saw something even he hadn’t seen in himself.
Damn. He buttoned his morning coat in an attempt to hide his girth and flashed his best smile. “I’m doing incredibly well, thank you. How about you, Miss? How is your day?”
“Equally glorious.” She smiled. “One of our assistants will tend to you shortly.”
He cringed, realizing that was why she had stopped to talk to him. “I appreciate that.”
“Feel free to look about.” She angled past him, to avoid another customer, her gown brushing across his legs.
A waft of penny soap and lilac water tinged the air as she passed.
Alexander swallowed against the scent that was so pure and simple. It didn’t choke him like the expensive French perfumes of his circle did. It was lush, warm and inviting.
He slowly turned to watch her, chanting to himself to breathe.
She gathered her calico skirts and climbed up a short wooden ladder leading to a stack of lace and ribbons on the shelf. A white clocked stocking peered out in between her movements, displaying not only an ankle but a bit of calf.
His lips parted and although he wanted to look away, he couldn’t. In that throat-pulsing moment, he envisioned candlelight illuminating her face in the space of an alcove hidden from everyone’s sight. He imagined his hands skimming her legs, her arms, her breasts, her throat as they kissed.
She gathered several lace spools from the shelf and fumbled, the ladder teetering against her efforts.
Christ. He dashed toward her and grabbed her waist hard, keeping her steady against the ladder. He froze, realizing her bum was at his face.
She paused and glanced down at him.
He counterfeited a smile. “I was worried you would fall.”
“I’m fine.” She stiffly tried to move against his hands. “Please unhand me.”
“Of course. I was only—”
She glared. “Sir. I know full well what you are up to. You aren’t the first man to look at my bum whilst I’m up on this ladder. Now unhand me.”
He snapped his hands back, edging away from her bum and the ladder. He could feel his collar sticking to his neck. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m certain you are.” Lowering herself from the ladder, she hurried past him back to his mother.
A breath escaped him. He glanced toward a mirror, his tall but barrel frame and overly round face reminding him of what she saw. What every female always saw.
He was disgusted with himself for eating those fourteen chocolates.
“Alexander,” his mother called out. “Come, dear. I need your opinion on something.”
He groaned. His mother had a tendency to always embarrass him. He trudged toward her and did his best not to look at the young woman who was still assisting his mother.
“Should I do the white lace or the yellow lace?” his mother asked.
Jesus Christ. Why not ask him to try the bonnet on? “I honestly don’t know.”
“Oh, come. You are the only one in the family who ever gives your mother sound fashionable advice. If you weren’t a man, I would say you were one of us.”
The shop assistant hesitated and side-glanced Alexander.
May the plague seize him for having a mother who made him sound like a lover of men. He adjusted his oversized coat, wishing he could crawl into it. “Real men don’t give women advice on what to wear. It doesn’t end well.”
A bubble of a laugh escaped the young assistant. She slapped a hand over her mouth.
He glared, no longer patient with her demeanor. “Are you always this rude?”
She lowered her hand, her pretty features apologetic but bright. “Not at all. Forgive me. I didn’t realize who you were, but that wit precedes you. I adore your mother. Lady Hawksford has been coming into this shop since I first started and has been such a blessing in my life. Very generous and very kind. You must be her son, Viscount Baxendale.”
He stared her down, not in the least bit fooled by her newfound enthusiasm. He had seen this one too many times before. How typical that she would stir a glop of honey into her manner now that she knew who the fat one was: the future earl of Hawksford who would one day inherit an estate worth a quarter of a million.
To hell with that. “Yes,” he coolly supplied, ensuring she knew he was no longer interested or impressed. “I am indeed Lord Baxendale. And who might you be?”
She hurried toward him and eagerly shook his hand with a bare hand as if she were one of his colleagues. “The name is Miss Charlotte Jane Sutton and I have waited months for the pleasure.”
He tightened his hold on her hand, reveling in its feel. He stiffly released her hand and fisted his own, wishing he wasn’t attracted to her. It wasn’t as if she would ever be attracted to him outside of his money. “Months?” he drawled in annoyance. “Really? I find that very difficult to believe.”
“I’m not exaggerating.” She smiled, the edges of her pretty eyes crinkling. “Not to be forward, my lord, but I feel as though I know you. Your mother talks about you and your adventures all the time. My favorite story without any doubt is when you were eleven and brought all four of your hunting dogs to church, insisting the pastor baptize them in case they got shot during a hunt.”
Oh, shite. His mother told her that? He tried not to panic knowing his mother had probably also told her about the story of when he was seven and walked around with a pillow that had a face painted on it. It was his betrothed for two years. “Excuse me for a moment.” He turned to his mother and tersely mouthed, “Why not write a novel and sell it!”
Lady Hawksford rolled her eyes and went back to picking through lace.
He swung back to Miss Sutton. “I was very fond of those dogs. When they passed, I refused to replace them with any others. We have a cat now, and blast that thing, it isn’t the same.”
She hesitated, her playfulness fading. “Thank you for the earlier rescue, my lord. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
He set his shoulders, still irked. She wasn’t winning him over that easy. He knew full well what she and every woman was after. His money. Not him. His money. “I’m certain you didn’t. I’m certain you treat all your customers the same. No matter who they are.”
She sighed. “Please don’t take it personally. I’m used to the wrong sort of men grabbing for me in the store. Last week, one woman’s husband slipped his hand beneath my skirt while I was up on the ladder and his wife accused me of encouraging him. It happens all the time.”
He lowered his chin. No wonder she had been prickly. He’d somehow misread this one. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you dealt with that.”
She shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“That doesn’t make it right. Does your employer know?”
She eyed her surroundings and lowered her voice. “Not to gripe, but my employer is a male halfwit who seems to think every assistant in this store is on display with the rest of the bonnets. I’m merely waiting for a better opportunity outside this store before I move on.”
How he loved being the son of an earl. “I think we can do better than that for you, Miss Sutton. Is your employer about?”
She blinked. “No. He doesn’t come in until Friday. Why?”
He widened his stance. “The moment that halfwit is in, I will personally speak to him about his policies and ensure he takes measures against costumers who feel the need to grope and terrorize you.”
Her startled gaze captured his gaze. “I would rather you not. The last girl who said something to Mr. Everette was dismissed.”
“He would lose far more than my mother as a customer if he tried to dismiss you and I doubt he wants that sort of gossip hitting the street. I will talk to him.”
She cringed. “Please don’t tell him I said anything. This position is all I have and I need the reference if I intend to work as a lady’s maid.”
It was obvious unlike coddled women of the ton, this one had to not only earn a wage but worry about gossip. He softened his voice. “You won’t lose your position, Miss Sutton. Upon my honor, you will retain it and will have a glowing reference so you can move on to better things. I promise.”
A breath escaped her. She smiled, setting a quick hand to her heart to show her appreciation. “Thank you.” She paused and tapped at the corner of her mouth. “You have something on your lip.”
He gaped. “Do I?” He swiped at it and glanced at the tips of his gloved fingers that was smeared with thick chocolate. He might as well have announced he was as fat as his tastes. His face felt hot. “Chocolate.”
She withdrew a handkerchief from her sleeve and leaned in. “Might I?”
“Bend toward me.”
He leaned down and toward her, trying not to look at her. He was certain the blazing heat of his face had already melted off whatever chocolate there had been.
Lifting herself up on toes, she dabbed at his lip and cheek. Her wrist smelled of powder and lilac as it teased his cheek with each soft touch.
Was it too soon to say he was in love? He longingly searched her face, noting how her full, moist lips puckered while she rubbed off the remaining chocolate.
“There.” She edged back and tucked away the handkerchief back into her sleeve. Her mouth quirked. “I do envy you, my lord. I have never had the pleasure of eating chocolate.”
God did he ever want to kiss her for trying to make him feel at ease. “Would you like me to send you a box?”
She shook her head. “I’m not allowed to accept gifts from customers.”
He eyed her. “I’m not a customer. I’m not interested in buying a bonnet for myself. Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
Miss Sutton burst into laughter. “Are you certain?”
He grinned. “Quite.” He really liked her. She was gorgeous, held no airs and didn’t make him feel self-conscious. He sensed he could be himself around her. Which was a first for him. She didn’t make him feel titled or fat. He was just…Alexander. It was so damn nice. She was so damn nice.
He could get naked for this.