Whom Shall I Kiss… An Earl, A Marquess, or a Duke?


What started as a research project soon became a scandal...

She wanted to prove a theory. He wanted to play a game. Can their schemes lead them towards a kiss of love?

Tired of watching her friends become ruined by the scoundrels of the ton, Sidney Hartridge devises an experiment to reveal their antics. Her plan is to lure three gentlemen to kiss her and see how they would protect her honor. When her research leads her into her own inappropriate scandal, her father agrees to a wedding offer from one of her subjects. As her fiancé blackmails her into a marriage she doesn’t desire, her research becomes exposed. Can Sidney avoid her own scandal with the one she most desires to kiss?

Noah Wildeburg started this season as any other by flirting with the sweet new debutantes. When he rescues a lady off the dance floor, he is unprepared for the emotions she stirs in his soul. As he pursues her, he realizes he must compete for her hand. As he charms her with tokens of affections and stolen kisses, he discovers she plays her own game. Will Noah win Sidney’s love or is she just another scandal to add to his list?

Whom Shall I Kiss… An Earl, A Marquess, or A Duke? is the first book in Laura A. Barnes new historical romance series. If you like lighthearted drama filled courtships set in Regency England, then you’ll love this new foray into the ton.

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Chapter One

 

 

     

“Are you positive you want to follow through with your plan, Sidney? What happens if your father discovers your experiment?”

       “You worry too much, Phee. Papa is busy with his own research to even have a clue what I am about to do,” Sidney Hartridge explained to her best friend Sophia Turlington.

       Sidney understood Phee worried about what she set out to accomplish. Was it proper? Of course not. But then everything in society towards women was too proper. She wished to step outside the boundaries set for her and discover how far she could push the limits of etiquette. Why could gentlemen kiss who they wanted, when they wanted, and never a shameful word was whispered of them? However, if an unmarried lady did the same, society would ostracize her. If a gentleman didn’t offer said lady a marriage proposal, then she disappeared to live in the country in disgrace. But if a gentleman made an offer for the lady’s hand, then she would enjoy a life in the highest tiers of the aristocracy. Why couldn’t a lady kiss who she desired and make the choice on who held her heart?

Not that Sidney looked to wed. She only wanted to conduct her own research on what choices were possible for her or any other debutante. She decided to open her dance card this season to every available gentleman in order to entice them to kiss her. She didn’t tell Phee the full extent of her experiment. Phee thought Sidney wanted to know who might coax her into a kiss, but there was more to her analysis than a simple kiss. Sidney also wished to see which gentlemen would make an offer for her hand in marriage. She needed to expose the players of the ton when she finished her experiment. She’d watched too many of her friends destroyed by the scoundrels who graced the ballroom floors over the seasons. It fell to her to correct their wrongs.

       Phee spotted the devious smile spreading across her friend’s face as Sidney scanned the crowded ballroom, searching for her first prey. This idea was crazy. She knew Sid’s heart was in the right place, but she was at real risk for ruination. However, Sidney, always jumped in feet first, and then thought with her head later. She was a passionate soul, something she inherited from both of her parents. Sidney’s whole family fought for the underdog and offered their support where needed. Phee envied Sid’s life and wished to be as adventurous as her. For now, she was content to watch from the sidelines. As Sidney’s best friend, she had to be on guard and ready to help at a moment’s notice.

        Most people were not drawn to her beauty, but to her confidence instead. Phee wished for an ounce of Sid’s self-assurance. As she continued to regard her friend, she noted Sidney’s attire for the evening. Phee laughed to herself as she took in Sid’s dress.

The new creation of pink chiffon and silk made her appear sweet and demure. The top of her gown was simple, with a scoop neckline that covered her breasts respectfully, yet still snug. To the matrons it appeared prim, but up close, men could appreciate the tightness of the garment. It would then lead their imaginations in unrespectable directions. A forest green bow wrapped around her waist, and her full skirts bounced when she moved. Dainty slippers adorned her feet, peeking out as Sid tapped her foot in anticipation. While the dress screamed pure, her features yelled siren. Her maid had interwoven a string of pearls between the luxurious, auburn curls piled atop her head.

 However, it wouldn’t be her appearance that enticed the gentlemen to her side this evening, but the lure of her eyes. Usually, Sid wore her spectacles to scare away any potential suitors. Tonight, she discarded them, and her sensuous, dreamy stare would reel them into her plans.

       Sidney surveyed the crowd, noting the gentlemen in attendance. This evening held the opening event of the season. Anybody with the highest ranks in the ton graced the ball with their presence. Sidney had marked her potential victims before she arrived. Two of them were present, and the last one should present himself before the evening concluded.

As Sidney ran her palms along her gown, straightening her bow, she knew her dance card would be full as soon as she stepped out from behind these columns. Her usual attire of a plain dress with a high collar and her customary glasses always planted her in the wallflower section. But this ball would be different. The eligible men would beg for a chance to dance with her. Tonight would set the first stage of her experiment into motion. She turned to her friend and grabbed her hand, pulling them into the festivities.

       “Stage one, Phee.” Sidney laughed with excitement.

       Phee groaned at her friend’s enthusiasm. This season would not be dull by any standard. She must keep Sidney out of too much trouble though. In doing so, she hoped she was not the one who became engulfed in a scandal.

       Sidney strode amongst the ton, wearing an expression of innocence, placing herself amongst the elitist of the aristocracy. She could do this because the Prince Regent, Prinny himself, highly regarded her family. Her father’s interaction with the Crown positioned their family well. They were sought after to appear at all the ton’s functions. Sidney never attended unless her mother forced her. She knew her mama wanted to see her married off rather than engulf herself in her father’s research. So, to pacify her mother, she attended a few balls and musicals and befriended the wallflowers. But as she observed her friends fall to ruin year after year, she knew she had to halt the double standards of their society.

       The hostess greeted Sidney and introduced her to a line of gentlemen, who filled her dance card full. Only one of her subjects approached her, claiming a waltz of all dances. Sidney smiled at him as he penned his name, his gaze taking in the tightness of her gown around her breasts instead of meeting her eyes. Men were so predictable. This experiment would be easier than she expected. She suspected that this particular gentleman would sign her dance card; he could never resist a beauty to seduce. He would be the most fun to play with throughout her study. The gentleman was soon nudged aside for another eager fool requesting a dance.

They all gathered amongst her, the simpering fools they were. These same gentlemen ignored her any other night because of her dowdy dress and plain features. When she dropped her familiar appearance and graced her form with the added enhancements, they clamored around her like pups begging for a treat. She giggled at their attempts at flattery until the orchestra started with the first set of the evening. The first man who signed her card strutted through her group of admirers, claimed her hand, and swept her toward the dance floor.

       Sidney inwardly rolled her eyes at her dance partner’s performance of dominance, but smiled and nodded her head in agreement as he boasted about himself. She took mental notes to write in her journal later as she studied how the male species interacted with other dancers on the floor. She was going mad listening to this pompous jackass brag about himself. Were all the gentlemen of rank always this conceited with themselves? This could be another variable she needed to add to her study; it could help explain her hypothesis that men thought women were impressed by their status in the ton.

       As the dance finished, her partner reluctantly passed her to the next gentleman on her list, only for her to be bored again by another male infatuated with himself. If this was how the season proceeded, Sidney would require a distraction to endure this torture. She didn’t have the same patience as her friend Sophia, who would have drawn these gentlemen out of their arrogance to dote on her. Phee held the special gift of charming people to see past themselves and to think of others.

       Once the dance ended, her partner escorted her near the windows, trying to coax her outdoors for a breath of fresh air. Since he was not one of her subjects, she begged off, pleading the need for a drink. The gentleman wanted to please her, so he ran off to do her bidding. Sidney rolled her eyes again at his eagerness. She needed to stop this habit, or her eyes would ache from all the rolling they would endure if every dance ended in this fashion.

       Sidney reached into her reticule, pulling out her fan to cool herself. With each swish of the fan against her warm body, she noted the mating ritual taking place on the ballroom floor. The gentlemen and ladies flirted with each other shamelessly. It did not matter if they weren’t married to one another, as long as their egos were stroked. Sidney noticed another subject flirted from one woman to the next, drawing out the seduction in open display. He would be her most successful subject, already proving her experiment a success with his prowess. She waited impatiently for their dance later this evening.

Sid stood on her tiptoes, searching the area for Phee, finding her standing beside her mother. Sidney swiftly lowered herself, hoping Phee didn’t catch sight of her. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to enjoy the ball with her best friend, she just didn’t want to stand next to Lady Turlington. Phee’s mother was a dragon—a fire breathing one at that. Lady Turlington felt Sidney was poorly neglected by her parents and always tried to better her. While it held true, Sidney’s parents were a bit absentminded and were usually too busy in their own pursuits to pay her any attention. It didn’t mean they were awful parents. It was quite just the opposite. They were the most loving parents a girl could ask for. Not only loving but also supportive.

       “What trouble are you involved in now, Brat?” a voice whispered in her ear.

       Sidney stilled at the tone; another one of her subjects had arrived. Her plan kept falling into place. She turned around slowly to catch his reaction to her appearance. When she faced him, she wasn’t disappointed. The expression of brotherly companion changed to the stare of an appreciative male. The easy-going smile of friendship vanished, replaced with admiration of what was presented before his eyes. She placed the sweetest of demure smiles on her face and flashed him a glance of innocence.

       “Why nothing, Rory, I am waiting for my dance partner to bring me a glass of lemonade,” Sidney answered.

       Sidney waited for a reply, only to watch as his eyes raked her form. He started at her toes and worked his way along her body, until he reached her chest, and then his eyes widened. His journey continued to her face, pausing at her smile, where his own face turned into a perplexed frown. When he finally reached her gaze, she saw his eyes glaring at her.

       Earl Roderick Beckwith, known as Rory to his closest friends, remained in conflicted emotion as he stared at the woman before him. He, himself didn’t know quite how to react to the sight. Before him stood a stunning creature in pink, smiling innocently—a vision held false, for he understood what lay beneath. Sidney was up to something; she didn’t fool him with her smile. He knew better. Still, the allure surrounding her confused him. This was not the young chit he frequently debated issues with on a weekly basis. Standing before him was a lady who begged for a stroll around the ballroom floor, or a walk in the garden. Actually, for …. He must halt his mind from where his dangerous thoughts took him.

       Sidney decided to add another element to her experiment. She wondered what the male’s reaction would be if she offered them the same perusal, they in turn bestowed upon her? Her gaze traveled the same direction as his. She started at his shoes, where she noted the worn footwear hidden with shoe polish to appear more dignified. She knew Rory’s family had fallen on rough times but he worked to replenish the family coffers. Her eyes took their time climbing past his long limbs and over his stomach and chest. He filled out a suit quite nicely. When she reached his face, she tilted her head to admire it for a while. While it turned most ladies away, others, like Sidney, admired his imperfections. Thick red-gold hair graced his head which curled around his ears. His nose was slightly out of joint from too many fights. His Irish heritage laid claim to that. His quick temper made him react with his fists instead of with his intellectual mind. When she glanced at his mouth, she noticed his smirk. Her eyes rose to his, where she took in his hazel depths twinkling at her in humor. She shrugged her shoulders at his reaction and gave him her own smirky smile.

       “Well?”

       “Well what?”

       “What are you up to now?”

       “I told you, I am waiting for a refreshment.”

       “Sidney, I understand you better than most of the guests here. Now I will ask you again, what are you—” he began only to be interrupted.

       “I believe this is our dance.”

       “Why I believe you are correct, My Lord,” Sidney replied.

       Sidney turned toward Rory and nodded her head as her partner swept her away onto the dance floor.

Rory watched the couple line up for the next set. He continued to view them as she flirted with the young lord, noting how the fool practically drooled at her feet. He must keep an eye on her for the sake of her parents. They were like family to him, and if she entangled herself in trouble, he’d feel responsible. He needed to find Sophia to discover what mischief Sidney entangled herself in this time.

~~~~~

The Duke of Sheffield stood nursing his drink as he watched his next partner have her toes stomped upon by her current dance partner. He wondered who the divine creature in pink chiffon and silk could be. He didn’t recall ever dancing with her before. She held herself with a confidence most of the debutantes present tonight lacked. The lady would make an excellent duchess. As the last of the Sheffields, he had reached an age where it became expected of him to produce an heir and a spare. His grandmother’s constant badgering about a wife and children reached the end of his nerves. To pacify her, he informed her he would secure a bride by the end of the season. So, this evening he decided to narrow his selection of possible candidates. No simple miss would do. She must have the credentials of a proper pedigree, be strong, and be supportive. Most of all, she must be beddable. He refused to marry himself off to a simpering cow to appease his grandmother. A chill ran along his spine at who his grandmother might saddle him with for a wife.

       Alexander Langley continued his regard of the lady as she became agitated at her partner. He laughed out loud at her impatience as they swept past him. Perhaps, she wouldn’t be a good candidate. When she glared at his humor, he lifted his glass to her with a twisted smile. Yes, she would be a pistol to fool around with, but not quite duchess material. At least he would enjoy holding her in his arms on the next dance. He would allow himself to have a pleasurable season; just because he decided to marry didn’t make him a groom yet.

       “Sheffield, who is that amazing creature you are admiring?” Marquess Noah Wildeburg, Wilde to his closest friends bumped into him. Wilde was already two sheets to the wind, and the ball had just begun. Alex shook his head at his friend’s early demise. He must keep Wilde’s attention away from the young chit or he wouldn’t get his chance to dance with her. Sheffield already decided he wouldn’t court her, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t flirt with her. If she met Wilde before him, he would never get the chance. Wilde always stole the beauties from him with his legendary charm. There wasn’t a lady young or old who could resist him. He charmed every woman, from the crones of the ton to the wallflowers glued to the wall.

       “Some new miss I’m amusing myself with as I watch the young pups fall all over her. Fools, all for a charming smile.” Sheffield tried to discourage Wilde.

       “Mmm, she appears to have more than a charming smile,” Wilde stared after her, regarding her charms. “I wonder if her dance card is full?”

       “Sorry, old chap, from what I hear it is full.”

       “Another time then. Care to join me in the card room?”

       “I will be along shortly. I must escort Grandmother around the room.”

       Wildeburg winced at the thought of having the responsibility of another person to care for. He took one last look at the chit on the dance floor who caught his attention. She captivated more than his eye. As he looked around the crowded ballroom, he noticed she drew every male’s attention to her as her dance partner tried to twirl her around the dance floor. The only thing the fool managed, was to bump her into the other couples as they danced. He saw her patience wore thin by the brittle smile upon her lovely face. A face he could stare at for hours if he was that sort of chap. When the fool bumped her against a column and preceded to step on her toes, Wilde decided to take pity on the beauty. Since he was near them, of course, they were practically at his feet.

       “Let me be of some assistance. You seem to be in a spot of trouble,” he said as he swooped in and transferred her into his arms.

       The bloke stuttered a response, which only became drowned out by the orchestra as Wilde swept the young miss away across the dance floor. He glanced down to smile his accomplishment at the miss, only to see her scowl deepen.

       “Who do you think you are, sir, to interrupt my dance?”

       “Now is that any way to thank me for rescuing you from broken toes?”

       “My toes are not broken, nor were they at any risk to become broken.”

       “I disagree with you, my dear. From where I stood, you were at a risk of an injury to your person. A very delightful person at that,” he drawled as his eyes took notice of her loveliness.

       Sidney’s anger simmered below the surface as she listened to the arrogance of her new dance partner. Not only did he interrupt her experiment, he also had the audacity to expect her to thank him. In addition to his faults, she could also add he devoured her with his eyes. His gaze traveled the length of her body up and down, then back again. With every glance, they lingered near her breasts, and when not there, he stared into her eyes. He behaved as a scoundrel of the highest order. A rogue who wished one thing from her, in which she would never grant. Sidney recognized he would be a perfect specimen for her experiment, but her frustration toward him affected her train of thought.

       It wasn’t only her frustration that distracted her; it was the touch of his hands against her waist. While he acted like a gentleman, when he held her hand and gently placed his other hand at her hip, his touch heated her insides. The warmth spread from his fingertips as it seeped into her. She felt flustered. His touch was nothing compared to the smile lighting his eyes. They were devilish and full of humor that wrapped her in his charm. His eyes begged her to laugh with him of the situation she had found herself in. These emotions were new to her, something she should explore but hesitant to respond to. She needed to be cautious, for she was held in the arms of a gentleman who could break her heart if she allowed him to charm her. Sidney tamped down her reaction to him and let her analytical brain take over. She could play on these emotions in retrospect for her experiment, use the allure she felt and apply it to her theory.

       Wilde became cautious as the chit’s expression changed from one of anger to one of flirtation. She coyly lifted her lips into a sensuous pout while her eyes darkened to a midnight blue. Did he glimpse desire in those depths? He was caught unaware at her transformation, unprepared for the siren she became, and he stumbled when he stepped on her toes like the dance partner he had rescued her from. No wonder the bloke behaved as a bumbling idiot toward her if she had smiled at him like she smiled at him now. But her smile was nothing compared to the husky laugh floating between her kissable lips. Lips he wanted to taste. Her laugh touched him deeply, making him want to hear more. He never felt this instant attraction for any other lady. She wasn’t his usual flavor. He preferred the widows of the ton, not the silly debutantes. Wilde trifled with them from time to time if the attraction presented itself—who was he to refuse temptation? He avoided the parson’s noose like the plague and only fooled around with those he knew wouldn’t trap him. As delightful as this chit seemed to be, he needed to leave. It was either that, or he would embarrass them both by kissing her endlessly on the ballroom dance floor.

       “You are correct, sir. Please accept my apology for doubting your true intentions. You are a hero of the highest order,” Sidney cooed.

       The orchestra finished playing the current set and prepared for a waltz. He dropped his hands from around her, putting distance between them. She held her hands in front of her primly as she tilted her head, studying him. Her rescuer was tall with thick, honey blond hair and bedroom eyes which held promises of pleasure. He stepped back from her, and she took a small step toward him. Her gaze shifted behind him, and her eyes lit up even more, if it were possible. She then took two more steps toward him, and he panicked. He retreated only to smack into somebody standing at his back. A hand halted him from falling backward.

       “I believe this waltz is mine.” Wilde heard the familiar voice of his friend talking to the beauty.

       Sidney lifted her dance card and noted the Duke of Sheffield to be her next dance partner. Alexander Langley stood behind the man, who she decided would make an excellent addition to her research. Especially as she had just witnessed his reaction to her change of attitude. He wanted to flee from her as fast as he could. She decided to have a little fun with the two gentlemen who stood before her, purely for the sake of research. She needed to understand how jealousy played a part in how a gentleman pursued a lady.

       “You are correct, Your Grace, but would you mind giving me a moment to thank this kind gentleman for his assistance?”

       Sheffield stood offended that this miss would make him wait for a dance he offered. Did she not realize who he was? He knew he should have moved on from her—she wasn’t duchess material—but the smile she bestowed on him drew him to her bidding. She smiled sweetly at him while she twisted her fingers before her, obviously nervous that she offended him. At the sight of her discomfort, he changed his mind to the dance. He would wait. If he acknowledged the truth of the matter, he became more annoyed at how she wanted to thank his friend. He thought Wilde had wandered to the card room, but instead he followed the beauty. He should have known better where his friend was concerned. There wasn’t a skirt safe from his pursuits. He squeezed harder on Wilde’s shoulder, expressing his irritation with him.

       “By all means. I will await your presence for our dance.”

       Wilde cringed at the edge in Sheffield’s voice to the miss. He knew the frustration that simmered under the surface. Her actions irritated Sheffield because, as a duke, she had shoved him to the side for a mere marquess—one who wasn’t very honorable. He only rescued the chit for a chance to fool with her, and Alex recognized his intentions. But it all changed as he held her in his arms. He wanted more but realized he shouldn’t. He needed to leave.

       “Thank you, My Lord, for your kindness. If you so desire, I have one dance remaining on my card you can request.”

       Wilde bowed before her. “It was a pleasure, my dear, to rescue a damsel in distress. I am sorry I cannot accept your lovely offer; a prior engagement requires my attention. I wish you a lovely evening, My Lady.”

       He raised her hand to his mouth for a kiss upon her gloved fingers. Wilde felt the small tremble as his lips lingered. When he lifted his eyes to her gaze, he drowned in their dark depths. With a growl heard from his side, he dropped her hand and bowed to her. Before she could respond he turned and strode out of the ballroom.

       Sidney’s hand slowly dropped to her side as she watched him disappear. Her thoughts became jumbled as she recalled his stare. She pressed her hand to her side, soaking in his touch. The notes of the orchestra as they played the waltz shook her out of her state of confusion.

 


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