The national bestselling author of No Greater Pleasure delivers a new novel featuring a reluctant student of seduction.
To escape an arranged marriage, Annalise Marony decides to become a Handmaiden of the Order of Solace. But she is thwarted at every turn by Cassian, a teacher of the faith, who must test her dedication. Older than most of the girls, Annalise knows that she will be expected to please a patron in pleasures of the flesh-and she is not shy about teasing Cassian. And as they both play out the game of master and student, the secrets in their souls will either tear them apart-or bind them together forever.
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“If I didn’t care for you so greatly, cousin, I’d surely hate you.” Caterina Marony turned from Annalise’s bedroom window to stare at her cousin. “You’ll be next.”
Annalise, who’d not yet bothered to dress in the formal gown she’d be wearing to her sister’s wedding, gave Caterina an uninterested grunt and bent back to the task of lacquering her fingernails. “After six weddings, my parents are hardly in any position to provide me with the sort of splendor in yonder garden. If Allorisa’s betrothed was not wealthy enough, and besotted enough, to provide my sister with the finest party she could ever hope for, they’d be stuck having tea sandwiches and cordial, the same as I expect to suffer.”
Caterina, Annalise’s junior by but a year, frowned and let the lace curtain fall over the glass. She crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s not the party that matters, Annalise. It’s the marriage.”
Annalise blew on her nails to dry them. “Surely you still cannot envy me my marriage if that’s what you truly think. Not when you know as well as I that it’s an arrangement, not a union of passion.”
Caterina’s gaze flickered. “But surely Jacquin will be fine lover. He’s so handsome, and…”
“A flirt? Yes, cousin, I’m well aware of my betrothed’s charms.” Yawning, Annalise got off the bed and went to the ewer and basin to bathe her face. The garden would be insufferably hot, worse even than this garret room, which was cooled only by an ingenious arrangement of vents and the windows that prevented no direct sunlight from getting in to heat the room. The water was warm but better than nothing, and she dampened a cloth to press the back of her neck while she made the rest of her toilette.
“He is most sincerely charming,” Caterina said.
“Jacquin,” Annalise replied without looking at her cousin, “has a fine cock and knows how to use it, which is not exactly the same as being a fine lover.”
Caterina giggled and gasped, and Annalise threw her a sharp look. “What? The use of such frank language has scarcely teased you so, before.”
Caterina fussed with Annalise’s small jewel cask, mostly empty but for a few good costume pieces. “Oh, well. Perhaps I played at worldliness before.”
“And now you play at modesty?”
Caterina looked up at that. “I can still envy you your future place, cousin. It’s especially worth envy when I have no prospects for a ring of my own.”
Hearing her cousin’s wistful tone, Annalise couldn’t find it within herself to tease. Instead, she hugged the other woman quickly. “You’ve had scads of suitors, Cat.”
“And my parents don’t approve of any of them!”
Annalise linked her arm around her cousin’s waist and studied their reflections in the looking glass atop her dresser. Caterina was tiny and dark, with a slim waist and flat bosom, slim hips of a perfect span. Her figure was fashionable, just right for the current high-waisted gowns and straight skirts. In comparison, Annalise had high, full breasts, long legs and ample hips less perfectly suited to the day’s current style. Not that she’d ever had complaints. She’d had half a dozen lovers, and not a one had been anything but eager to sample her lushness in dress or out of it.
“Your father simply isn’t ready to let you go, that’s all,” Annalise said. “Whereas mine is probably leaping in the air with joy to be rid of the last of his daughters.”
Cat grimaced and turned her face from side to side, letting her dark curls tumble over her shoulders. “Even so, I’d far rather have someone waiting for my hand than look ahead to the future empty of a husband.”
“Your future isn’t empty. It can’t be. Look at you, that beauty.”
“If it were only beauty that brought me a husband, I’d have no worries!”
“Ah, well, it was scarcely my face that brought me the offer from Jacquin, as you well know. It was our fathers’ doing more than ours.” Annalise laughed. “Not, mind you, that I’m complaining. I’ve ever found Jacquin’s company to be most merry, and if our fathers feel it will benefit the family businesses to join, well…”
Well, then at least she would be wed and need no longer worry about it.
Cat snorted lightly and looked away from Annalise. “You’d better get dressed. I hear the bells of the Temple priests’ carriage, and you know your mother will wish you to be there to greet them.”
Annalise sighed. “I supposed I should, else she work herself into a frenzy. Though why my presence is required for the blessing I don’t know. And why, by the Void, did my sister believe velvet was a smart choice for a mid-summer wedding? I shall expire of the heat before they’ve even said half their vows.”
“At least she asked you to stand beside her.”
Annalise rolled her eyes. “Dear, sweet, Cat. You know the only reason my sister has me as her maid is because my mother insisted, and our next closest sister is too fully with child to be expected to stand up with Allorisa. And the others must come from too far a distance for her to demand their service the way she can of me.”
Cat laughed softly. “And you have such a natural inclination toward service, cousin…”
Annalise threw a damp cloth at the other woman, who ducked it, laughing. “I do it for the sake of my sister’s betrothed, who will have to spend the rest of his years soothing her temper. There’s no need for me to tease her into further fury when the wedding itself has sent her into a froth.”
From outside in the garden, the toll of bells grew louder. The priests had arrived. Annalise could hear her mother’s chatter even through the glass.
“Come, Cat. Help me into this Void-begotten gown and tidy my hair. I must go stand beside my sister and make certain she doesn’t do something frivolous.”
“Or run away,” Annalise said with a lift of her brow. “Though what a merry scandal that would be!”