My Fair Princess

My Fair Princess

The Improper Princesses Book One
Kensington Books
August 2016
ISBN: 978-1420141092

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First, Vanessa Kelly brought readers The Renegade Royals. Now, in a delightfully witty new series, she introduces The Improper Princesses—three young women descended from royalty, each bound for her own thrilling adventure . . .

Despite being the illegitimate daughter of a prince, Gillian Dryden is happily ignorant of all social graces. After growing up wild in Italy, Gillian has been ordered home to England to find a suitable husband. And Charles Valentine Penley, the excessively proper, distractingly handsome Duke of Leverton, has agreed to help transform her from a willful tomboy to a blushing debutante.

Powerful and sophisticated, Charles can make or break reputations with a well-placed word. But his new protégée, with her habit of hunting bandits and punching earls, is a walking scandal. The ton is aghast . . . but Charles is thoroughly intrigued. Tasked with taking the hoyden in hand, he longs to take her in his arms instead. Can such an outrageous attraction possibly lead to a fairytale ending?

“My favorite hero and heroine of 2016!” ~ Bronwen Evans, USA Today Bestselling historical romance author

Nielsen BookScan Romance Bestseller

A Goodreads Best Romance of the Month (August)

#1 Amazon Bestseller in Historical Romance

#1 iBooks Bestseller in Historical Romance

#1 Nook Bestseller in Regency Historical Romance

Aspen Gold Finalist

“Kelly’s Improper Princesses Regency series opens gallantly with well-thought-out characters, madcap adventures, and London’s cunning, cagey elite…Gillian’s antics imbue her story with energy and some intrigue, but the most affecting part of Kelly’s tale is Charles’s development as he falls in love with Gillian and breaks free of complacency and propriety. This is a fun ride with a colorful, adventurous heroine and a happily disconcerted, formerly perfect hero.” ~Publishers Weekly

“Kelly launches her new Improper Princesses series with another superbly crafted Regency historical romance that puts a clever spin on My Fair Lady while at the same time delivering the usual elegant writing, tempered with a deliciously dry wit and artfully nuanced characters readers have come to expect from her.”~Booklist

“Vanessa Kelly proves she’s a true star of the Regency genre with My Fair Princess, a book which shines brilliantly with her trademark witty repartee and lively plot. The romance between her straight-laced Charles and pistol-packing, unconventional Gillian is perfectly delightful, and it’s a joy to watch them grow and change with each other. With just the right amount of suspense and passion, Kelly’s My Fair Lady reimagining is one you’ll savor long after you finish reading.” ~Erica Monroe, USA Today Bestselling Historical Author

“Another highly entertaining read from one of my favorite authors! I don’t think there was a single boring moment from beginning to end as Gillian and Charles find their way to happily ever after. While Charles is called Perfect Penley for his proper behavior, Gillian is his complete opposite. As he tries to teach her the proper way to behave in society, it is he who begins to lose control. If you read any of the Renegade Royals books, you will definitely like this one, and you even catch a glimpse of Griffin and Justine from that series. This is a must read for historical romance fans!” ~5 stars, Jen’s Reading Obsession 

“Kickass alpha heroine inside! This was such a fun read. From page one I was hooked and Gillian was my hero…ine!” ~4 stars, Lampshade Reader

“The writing style, action, and historical facts were all delightful. I definitely recommend this for fans of historical romance.” ~Reviews by Ruckie

“Gillian was definitely improper. Thoroughly improper, and I loved her for it. Gillian’s ‘I can do anything and kick butt while I’m at it’ was perfect.” ~4 stars, What’s Beyond Forks?

“What a fun and somewhat different historical romance! Different, you ask? Typically the heroine in books set in this time period are shy wallflowers and the hero is usually a rake or rogue who changes when he meets and falls in love with the wallflower. Our heroine, Gillian, is anything but a wallflower!” ~4 stars, Two Girls With Books

“I enjoyed this story so much and read it overnight, as it was too interesting to put down. Gillian is a character I absolutely adore, a young woman who is strong for the sake of loved ones, who is courageous and endearing to the point that you can’t really fault her for not being a perfect society lady, because she has greater priorities in mind…this is a book I highly recommend.” ~5 stars, Buried Under Romance

“I love versions of My Fair Lady, especially when the Henry Higgins character comes to realize that he likes his “Eliza” without all the unnecessary “improvements”…this was my first book from Ms. Kelly, but it won’t be my last!” ~4.5 stars, Becky on Books…and Quilts

“I absolutely loved My Fair Princess, with its stubborn and feisty heroine and stern and aloof hero. They were a bang up match and the writing was literally a dream.” ~5 hearts, Read More Sleep Less

“MY FAIR PRINCESS is always engaging and truly unforgettable. Whether this couple was involved in bantering back and forth, or displaying emotions because of how they felt, every moment is absolutely realistic. The passionate side of their relationship is certainly steamy when their feelings gain control, and Charles demonstrates he is not as straitlaced as most people think.” ~5 stars 

“Ms. Kelly…is not just a standby historical romance author either. She’s my go-to when I need a historical romance fix. Her writing is beautiful and clear, precise and engaging…this is a great starter to Ms. Kelly’s new series.” ~5 hearts, Written Love Reviews

“Ms. Kelly has written an engaging story of a strong hero AND a strong heroine. From the first chapter to the end I was hooked on Gillian’s strength and resolve to do what she felt was right despite what anyone else thought or what the consequences might be. On several occasions I found myself saying “you go girl”. Add in a vulnerability that Gillian didn’t know she possessed and you have a character that leaps from the pages.” ~4 stars, Romantic Historical Reviews

“Vanessa Kelly creates characters that are bold and electrifying.” ~5 stars, I Love Romance

“It isn’t often a reader finds  a historical romance with all the ingredients to make it an awesome read. This witty romance with the right amount of humour, sentiment and action is one such book.” ~5 stars, The Travelogue of a Book Addict

“With witty dialogue and tastefully crafted scenes of romance, this book is a treat for historical romance fans.” ~4 stars, Book and Ink Reviews

“Readers of My Fair Princess will find it hard not to smile along with Charles and Gillian as they navigate the trappings of the ton and their path towards love. A true gem of a book!” ~4.5 stars, Polished Bookworm

“I love sassy heroines that don’t fit in the cookie cutter norm of most books. Give me a flawed character, such as a woman hellbent on revenge and dresses like a man during a time when trousers were definitely NOT for women, and I’m one happy reader…I fell in love with Gillian, flaws and all.” ~4 stars, Once Upon A Book

“This book hooks you right from the beginning and does not want to let you go…the characters practically come to life before you and it’s almost as if you are watching them from the pages. Ms. Kelly’s way with words is sure to delight you and make you wait with bated breathe for the next Improper Princess to come around.” ~4.5 stars, Harlequin Junkie Recommended Read

“The path to the eventual ending is wonderfully paved with intrigue, moments of tension, honesty and plenty of heart. A wonderful read that has jumped into my favorites, with Gillian and Charles moving to the top of my faves from Vanessa Kelly.” ~5 stars, I am, Indeed

“Narrator Beverley A. Crick seamlessly shifts between the many characters in the first book in the Improper Princesses series…listeners will relish the clever banter between this smart protagonist and her ever-so-proper guardian.” AudioFile

My Fair PrincessThree Weeks With a PrincessThe Highlander’s Princess Bride


February 1816

The man who’d murdered her stepfather was finally in her sights.

Unfortunately, he was still beyond her rifle’s range. Gillian Dryden breathed out a curse that would have had her grandmother boxing her ears. They would need to get much closer to the bandits before taking a shot.

“You didn’t learn that dainty expression in the salons of Palermo’s distinguished nobles, I’ll wager,” her brother murmured. Like her, Griffin Steele’s gaze was locked on the small cluster of men in the gorge below them.

“Indeed not. Their language is a great deal more shocking.”

When Griffin huffed out a laugh, Gillian’s heart warmed with wonder and gratitude. Strictly speaking, he was her half-brother, which didn’t make him any less of a marvel. She’d only met him a few weeks ago, and yet there he was lying next to her on a limestone outcropping in the hardscrabble Sicilian hills. As was hers, Griffin’s rifle was aimed with deadly intent. If that didn’t constitute true familial affection, she couldn’t think what did. Particularly since he didn’t entirely approve of her actions.

“You do realize I’m here under duress,” he said, echoing her thoughts. That was another thing she’d discovered about him. He had a precise ability to read people.

Gillian peered at their target, a hulking man who’d just swung off his horse and handed the reins to one of his men. His gang of cutthroats had stopped to rest and to water their animals. One of the bandits had quickly built a fire, while another retrieved a brace of rabbits hanging from a saddle and began skinning them. By all appearances they would be loitering for some time in the pleasant meadow. That suited Gillian perfectly. It was easier to kill a man taking a leisurely smoke under a tree than to pick him off the back of a cantering horse.

“I’m aware you don’t wish to be here,” she said quietly. “I’m very grateful for your company.”

“Your dear mother will roast me over the coals if she finds out about this little escapade. As will my wife,” he muttered.

One only had to look into Griffin Steele’s cool, dark gaze to realize how dangerous he was, but he turned into a puppy dog in the presence of his wife, Justine. With everyone else, a genial wolfhound was a better description for him, but one with a lethal bite.

“They won’t have anything on Granny,” Gillian said. “You can’t imagine what she’d say about this.”

Not that it mattered what her mother or grandmother thought. Not when she was so close to achieving the goal she’d pursued these past four long years. And now that Antonio Falcone was in her sights, Gillian would allow nothing to stop her from exacting justice.

Griffin shifted, as if trying to get comfortable on the unforgiving rock surface beneath them. “Actually, I’ve heard quite a lot on the subject from Lady Marbury. She’s extremely concerned about your impetuous behavior.”

Gillian twisted to look at him, narrowing her gaze on his tanned, clever face. His eyes were shadowed under the brim of his slouched hat, and his features were devoid of expression. The long black hair clubbed back over his shoulders and the thin scar running down the side of his face made him look more like the bandits below than a wealthy, educated man who had royal blood running through his veins.

“They want you to get me in hand, don’t they?” she asked. “I assure you, it’s pointless.”

“So I told Lady Marbury. She found my reply less than satisfactory, I’m sorry to say.”

“If you don’t approve of what I’m doing, then why are you here? This isn’t your fight. And it’s not like I don’t have help.”

He snorted. “An old man and a boy.”

“Stefano taught me everything I know, and his grandson is coming along quite nicely.”

Griffin glanced over his shoulder to a rocky alcove where the man and boy held the horses. “Stefano looks to be at least eighty, and his grandson is barely big enough to mount a horse.”

Gillian switched her attention back to the bandits. “So that’s why you came with me today. You promised my family you’d protect me. It’s entirely unnecessary, I assure you.” She had been patiently working toward this moment for years. If she didn’t have the strength, the skill, and the brains to take down Falcone now, she didn’t deserve another moment’s peace.

I won’t fail you, dear Step-papa.

“I told Lady Marbury that you’re more than capable of defending yourself,” he said. “I just thought I’d come along and lend a hand.”

She was so grateful that Griffin never talked to her like she was some silly miss. Or worse, treat her like a lunatic for seeking vengeance for her stepfather’s brutal murder. She was fine with not being like other girls, but it wasn’t always easy to be an outsider, living half in the shadows with her name—her very existence—marked by scandal. The fact that her half-brother and his wife had come to Sicily to seek her out warmed Gillian down to her toes.

They studied the men below in the meadow. Dappled sunlight fell along the banks of the nearby stream, and the shadows of the trees partly obscured a clear shot. The best firing position would be down and to the right, along a rutted path that ran along the cliffs.

Gillian had received word only a few hours ago from a local villager that Falcone was on the move. She’d had to scramble, but fortunately it had been early enough that no one had seen her race to the stables of her grandmother’s villa—no one except Griffin. She’d been stunned when, instead of trying to stop her, he’d simply rolled his eyes and saddled another horse.

“You don’t need to do this, you know,” Griffin murmured. “I can take care of it for you.”

She peered at him, squinting in the strong morning sunlight. From the look on his face, he was entirely serious. That unfamiliar sense of gratitude once more curled its warmth around her heart.

“No one’s ever offered to do that before,” she said softly.

He flashed a grin. “Most people aren’t in the habit of offering to shoot people for young ladies.”

“Except for you, of course.”

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

For a fleeting moment she was tempted to let him kill Falcone for her. After all, it wasn’t as if she relished killing. The first time she’d taken down one of the bandit’s men, she’d barely escaped before having to drop to her knees and retch up the contents of her stomach. The second and third time, the same thing had happened. It might even be the same with Falcone himself, despite the fact that he’d been the one to put the pistol to her stepfather’s head and pulled the trigger. Seeking justice—or vengeance, some would call it—did tend to wear on one’s soul. More than once, she’d almost given the whole thing up. But for too long Falcone and his men had been allowed to roam free, committing murder and mayhem. Gillian would hold fast to her purpose, and to the vow she’d made to her stepfather the day they’d entombed him in cold marble.

“I’m touched, Griffin, but I need to see this through.”

He blew out a frustrated breath. “You do realize the bastard’s death will never truly bring you peace.”

“I don’t seek peace, I seek justice.”

“Revenge, more like it. The authorities in Palermo should handle this.”

A derisive snort was her only reply. Her grandmother, the Countess of Marbury, had spent two years seeking justice from the authorities. They weren’t interested, and neither was her stepfather’s heir, the current Count Paterini. As long as Falcone continued to fill their coffers with bribes, the authorities and local noblemen were content to let the bandit lord wreak havoc on the Sicilian countryside.

Griffin studied her. “You needn’t soil your hands with their blood, my dear girl.”

“They’re soiled already, Griffin.”

He shot her a puzzled look before understanding dawned. “Good God. How many men have you killed over this?” He sounded thunderstruck.

“A few,” she hedged.

“Oh, is that all?”

“They deserved it.”

The bandit-scum had killed Step-papa, his two bodyguards, and the young groom accompanying him on that fateful trip through the Gorges of Tiberio. It was fitting that Gillian would deliver justice in almost the same spot where those innocents had breathed out their last moments of existence.

Her brother cursed under his breath. “Gillian, this should not be your life.”

“Do I look like a proper young lady to you?”

He cast a sardonic glance at her attire—sheepskin coat, buckskin breeches, and riding boots. “You could be. You’re an attractive, respectable-looking girl when you’re not disguised like a bloodthirsty ruffian.”

“I thought you, of all people, would understand,” she said, exasperated.

“I do, but if you continue along this course, it will take its toll. Killing always does.”

She managed not to flinch. “I don’t have a choice.”

“There is always a choice, Gillian.”

She flicked her gaze back to Falcone, who was sitting on a rock as he smoked a pipe. He was also splendidly out in the open, but she had to get closer.

“There’s no point in discussing this. I’m doing it,” she said.

“No, I will—”

“It was my fault,” she hissed. “That’s why I have to do it. No one else.”

He frowned. “I don’t understand.”

She had to swallow before she could answer. “It’s my fault that my stepfather was murdered. I sent him straight into Falcone’s line of fire.”

“So…it’s guilt that motivates you. Killing Falcone will likely be nothing more than an empty victory, if such is the case.” He squeezed her arm. “As long as you continue to blame yourself, you will never find peace.”

She hoped to God he was wrong. He had to be wrong. “You are the most irritating man I have ever met.”

“So my wife informs me on a regular basis.”

Below them, Falcone knocked the tobacco out of his pipe and then hauled his formidable bulk to his feet. Gillian mentally cursed as he began to stroll over to join his men under the trees.

She turned and signaled to Stefano and his grandson. The old man pulled his pistol from the brace on his saddle, ready to cover her back.

“Griffin, help me or not, but I’m doing this now.” Before he could answer, she slung her rifle across her back and slithered away from the edge. As quickly as she dared, she crawled down the narrow, rutted path that ran along the rim of the gorge. If she stood, it was unlikely the men below would notice her, but she was taking no chances. Falcone had evaded her too many times over the years

Her brother followed her. She could practically feel him seething with frustration, but he made not a sound. She had to give him credit—he was awfully good.

A few feet short of her goal, Gillian held up a hand to halt her brother’s advance. She stole a quick glance over her shoulder. Just behind them Stefano crouched, his tanned, leathery features cast into shade by his broad-brimmed hat. Griffin’s expression registered shock at the sight of the old man so close, pistols at the ready. Stefano might be getting on in years, but he was still vital and strong. He could move like a ghost, silent and lethal at her command.

After crooking a finger to signal Griffin to follow, Gillian wriggled up to the edge of the cliff. She cautiously peered over the rocks and saw the bandits under a stand of beech trees, their attention on their flasks of wine as they waited for the rabbits to cook over the open flame. Unfortunately, Falcone was half-obscured by one of his men, and was partly in shade. She would have to stand up if she wanted a clear shot.

She came up in a crouch and pulled the rifle from her back. She’d already checked it three times, but did so once more. The Baker was a fine weapon. It had belonged to a Hussar, and had a light, short carbine, which made it easier to handle. But it was less accurate than rifles used by sharpshooters. Although she could reload quickly if she missed her shot, she’d make an inviting target while she did.

So get it right the first time.

Griffin came up beside her. He gave her a terse nod as he brought his rifle to bear on the men below. But he then sucked in a harsh breath when Gillian rose swiftly to her feet, taking aim at Falcone.

As bad luck would have it, an eagle soared right overhead, screeching out a cry. The men below automatically glanced up, directly at her and Griffin.

Gillian fired. The shot echoed through the gorge in a deafening report. Another boom followed as Griffin fired a second later. Falcone stumbled against a low rock, roaring as he clutched his shoulder. Another bandit went down like a sack of grain tossed from a cart.

The other bandits scrambled for their weapons.

“Get down, you daft woman,” Griffin barked, reaching to pull her away from the edge.

Gillian evaded his grasp, sliding on the rocky scree and almost losing her footing. Still, she managed to recover and reload. Griffin did the same as he let loose a string of hair-raising curses. She yanked up her rifle, took aim, and fired again.

A moment later, a bullet slammed into her shoulder, throwing her to the ground. The back of her head connected with rock and pain exploded through her skull. Gillian lay there stunned, staring up at a sky that shimmered with a milky haze. Her ears rang with the sound of a thousand church bells.

Move, you idiot.

She couldn’t—not even one blessed finger.

Griffin’s face suddenly swam above her, only slightly less hazy than the sky. Gillian forced the words out past the pain. “Did I get him?” she whispered.

“For Christ’s sake, not now,” Griffin spat.

He pressed something into her shoulder, so hard that bile rose in her throat and black dots swam across her vision. She forced back the encroaching darkness.

“Is Falcone dead?” she ground out.

Griffin glanced over his shoulder and barked something to Stefano. Then he turned back to her.

“Yes,” he said.

Relief swamped her, momentarily driving out the fire consuming her body.

“We did it, Griffin.” If she had to die in the effort, thank God she’d been successful.

“Indeed.” Griffin yanked something tight around her shoulder and upper arm. She had to bite back a shriek. “But trust me, dear sister, your killing days are over.”

When he lifted her onto his shoulder, the blackness rushed in, pulling her away from the heat, the light, and the pain.

From everything.


May 1816

Charles Valentine Penley, Sixth Duke of Leverton, hastily stepped off the curb and into the street, narrowly avoiding collision with three little boys barreling down the pavement on their way home from the park. As much as he could appreciate their high spirits, they were covered in mud, and one generally didn’t make social calls looking as if one had been rolling around in the stables.

“Slow down, you little hellions,” Kates yelled from the seat of the curricle. “You almost knocked His Grace flat on his arse.” Kates, an excellent groom, occasionally forgot himself as his rather disreputable origins in the London stews bubbled to the surface.

“No need to shout,” Charles said.

“They might have spooked the horses. And you all but scared the wits out of the poor things, jumpin’ off the curb like that,” Kates added in an accusatory tone. In his world, nothing was worse than ruffling the high-strung nerves of the animals under his care.

“How dreadful of me,” Charles said. “Do you think I should apologize to them?”

When Kates was upset, his resemblance to a sad-eyed basset hound verged on the remarkable. “Now, no need to make a jest out of it, Yer Grace. You know this pair hates goin’ out in all this wind. It’s well-nigh a gale, I tell you.”

As if to underscore the point, a stiff breeze swirled down Brook Street, kicking up both dust and the skirts of the three nursemaids hurrying after their ill-behaved charges. Two were young and pretty and smiled flirtatiously as they passed, murmuring apologies for any inconvenience the boys might have caused.

Charles gave them a polite smile before turning back to Kates. “Very well, you may return to Grosvenor Square now. I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying, and God forbid I should keep the horses out in a hurricane.”

It was merely a blustery day, an unseasonably cool one in an unseasonably cool spring. Still, it felt good to be outside. Only recently returned from his estate in Lincolnshire, Charles had spent the last several days buried up to his eyeballs in paperwork in his parliamentary offices. He already missed the long rides, the crisp, clean air, and the quieter, more ordered way of life in the country.

Kates cast an assessing glance at the slate-gray sky. “Are you sure, sir? It looks as if it might be comin’ on rain. You don’t want to be gettin’ them boots wet. Jobbins will be pitchin’ a fit if you do.”

“Let me explain something, Kates. I’m the duke, and Jobbins is the valet. I pay his wages. I do not pay him to pitch a fit.”

The groom eyed him uncertainly. “If you say so, Yer Grace.”

The staff at Leverton House lived in terror of Jobbins, who’d been around since Noah’s Flood and who had a knack for reducing even the butler to grudging compliance. Jobbins had acquired his intimidating manner from his previous master, the Fifth Duke of Leverton. Unlike that duke, however, Jobbins had a heart. Charles had always found it rather amazing that his valet treated him with more genuine affection than his own father had.

Charles took pity on his clearly worried groom. “Would you rather the horses get wet or me?”

Kates darted another alarmed glance at the sky, then at the patiently waiting pair. “Right you are, sir. I’d best be getting these two safely home.”

While Kates set a brisk trot down Brook Street, Charles turned to mount the steps of the building in front of him. The handsome brick and stucco townhouse had belonged to the Marburys for as long as he could recall, although it had been rented until Lady Marbury and her family’s recent return to England after many years abroad.

They were his family too, as he had to remind himself. He and Lady Marbury were cousins a few times removed on his father’s side, and Lady Marbury’s daughter, now the widow of an Italian aristocrat, had been married at a young age to one of Charles’s maternal uncles. That union had only lasted a few years before his uncle died of a heart attack in the bed of a notorious courtesan. The young dowager duchess had then gone on to scandalous escapades of her own—so scandalous, in fact, that the Marburys had taken their errant daughter and decamped to the Continent, settling first in Naples and then Sicily.

They had remained there for well over twenty years, even after the death of Lord Marbury. Why they had returned now—and why Charles had been so peremptorily summoned by Lady Marbury—was a mystery that instilled a certain caution. But they were family, and Penleys always put family first. That lesson had been drummed into his head from an early age and wasn’t one he was likely to forget.

A liveried footman ushered him in with a quiet greeting, taking his hat and gloves. A moment later, an extremely correct butler appeared from the back of the house to escort him to Lady Marbury. The surroundings exuded an atmosphere of quiet, familiar elegance. Charles had visited the house often as a child, and he could almost imagine nothing had changed since those long-ago days, before the family’s ignominious fall from grace and social exile from England.

The butler led him to the back of the house, to what he vaguely recalled was Lady Marbury’s private sitting room. That was interesting, since he’d been expecting to make a formal call. After all, the last time he’d seen her had been when he was a callow youth of eighteen, on the Grand Tour with his tutor. Much had changed since then, including the fact that Charles was now Duke of Leverton.

After a quick tap on the door, the butler announced him.

Charles entered the small room and came to a halt, feeling as if he’d stepped back in time. The furnishings hadn’t altered a jot. Even the yellow swags draping the windows looked the same, albeit rather faded. He remembered the ornate French bracket clock on the mantel and the portrait of a previous earl of Marbury, painted by Romney, hung over the fireplace.

It made him feel like a child again, not a sensation he relished.

A soft laugh jerked him out of his reverie. “It’s uncanny, isn’t it? I almost felt like a young woman when I walked into this room. We have been away for much too long.”

Lady Marbury stood there, elegantly attired in a style more French than English. Her clear blue eyes regarded him with amusement, and a welcoming smile lit up her handsome, barely lined face. Only the white hair under a dainty lace cap gave testament to her age of more than seventy years. Her life had not always been easy, but she had certainly retained much of her beauty and quiet grace.

Her smile slid into a grin. “Charles, it’s very good to see you again. I do hope, however, that my appearance has not struck you dumb. Have I aged so much that you no longer recognize me?”

“Please forgive me,” he said, taking her hand. “I truly was struck dumb by your youthful appearance. You’ve hardly aged a day.”

“What nonsense.” She stretched up and pressed a fleeting kiss to his cheek. “You too have changed a great deal. You’ve grown into a handsome man, which is hardly surprising since you were a good-looking and charming boy.”

He mentally blinked at her affectionate compliment. The Lady Marbury he remembered was not a woman prone to such high praise and flattery.

And no one would have ever labeled him charming—awkward and tongue-tied was more like it. True, he’d acquired social polish over the years. But since Lady Marbury wouldn’t know that, her words made him even more suspicious. He knew her to be a brilliant woman and the true force behind her husband’s political career before their exile to Sicily. Lady Marbury had always been the canny one, a fact he must not forget.

“Please sit, Charles,” she said, waving him to an armchair covered in gently faded but still beautiful embroidery. She took the claw-footed settee across from him. “I hope you’ll forgive our rather shabby appearance. We’ve not yet had the chance to redecorate.”

“There’s nothing shabby about it, my lady. It’s charming and very . . . homey.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” she said in a dry tone that sounded more like her. “And, please, there is no need for such formality between us. If you keep referring to me as ‘my lady,’ I shall be obliged to refer to you as Your Grace. You used to call me Aunt Lucy, after all.”

He refrained from expressing polite incredulity. Charles had sometimes called her Aunt Lucy when he was a boy, more to annoy his elders than anything else. Neither the Marburys nor his parents had encouraged such informalities.

“As you wish, Aunt Lucy,” he said. “Now, how may I be of assistance to you?”

Her eyebrows lifted a tick. “Why would you assume I’m in want of assistance? Perhaps I simply wished to see one of my nearest relations after so many years away from home.”

“Are we such near relations? I will have to check the family Bible.” He pretended to ruminate for a few seconds. “Although I suppose you must be referring to your daughter’s marriage to my uncle which, as I recall, was extremely short-lived.”

She blinked, but then her eyes warmed with laughter. “How wretched of you to point that out. Are you suggesting that I’m doing it rather too brown?”

He gave her a half smile. No point in letting Aunt Lucy think she could push him about for her own purposes. Once, he had been very easy to manipulate, but those days were long gone.

“Perish the thought,” he said. “Your missive, however, seemed to carry a rather urgent undertone. Forgive me if I assumed incorrectly.”

Warmth lingered in her gaze. “You would be wrong, you know. I am happy to see you. But you are correct—I do need your help. I was simply trying to figure out the most successful line of approach.”
“Directly, I would think. There’s no need to beat around the bush with me.”

“I’d forgotten how blunt and honest you were as a boy.”

“I believe you mean clumsy.”

“No, that was your father’s assessment, not mine. I did not agree with him.”

He nodded his thanks, not wishing to encourage that discussion. Charles was well aware of his late father’s opinion of him.

“Besides,” she continued, “I understand that you are now a paragon of courtesy and good taste. Peerless Penley, is that not what people call you?”

They did, and he hated it. But like many things in life, he’d learned to turn it to his advantage. “Also Perfect Penley and Impeccable Penley. You have your pick.”

She nodded. “Yes, I’ve heard those as well. Your reputation as a leader of the ton is quite formidable.”

Now they were getting to it. “And is that why you seek my help?”

“Let me ring for tea before I explain.”

He held up a hand. “Perhaps we can dispense with the social formalities just this once, despite my fearsome reputation. Please, Aunt, speak freely.” As much as he’d learned to value the social niceties, he sometimes found them irksome and time-consuming.

She eyed him dubiously. “Very well. Perhaps it’s best if we have tea once my granddaughter joins us.”

Surely she didn’t mean . . . “Are you referring to Miss Gillian Dryden?”

“I am.” Her answer held a touch of defiance.

“You brought her back to England with you?” He couldn’t keep an incredulous note from his voice.

His aunt starched up, looking every bit the imperious aristocrat he remembered. “Is there some reason why my daughter and I shouldn’t bring Gillian home?”

Besides the fact that she was the bastard daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the Prince Regent’s brother? But, of course, he would never be so rude as to state it so bluntly. “Forgive me. I simply assumed her to be married and living in Sicily. She’s . . . twenty-two by now?”

“Twenty-one. And I think you can guess why she’s not married.”

“I’m sorry. I had no desire to offend.” He offered her a wry smile. “Clearly, my reputation is not so well deserved after all.”

She drummed her fingers on her knee. “That is certainly not what I was given to understand.”

Now they were going around in circles, an even bigger waste of time. “Is it Miss Dryden you wish to speak to me about?”

She let out a sigh that sounded both weary and worried. “Forgive me for biting off your head. It’s been a long two months.”

“I have no doubt your travels were taxing. Nor could it have been easy to return home after so many years abroad.” Although decades had passed since the Marburys left England, the scandal that had forced them away was still not forgotten.

Aunt Lucy’s gaze softened. “Yes, England is still home, for all that. Despite the difficulties, I am happy to be back here in my declining years.”

“Good Lord. I had no idea you were verging on such decrepitude.”

She let out a reluctant laugh. “That, my dear Charles, was anything but polite.”

“No, but I needed to point out that you are anything but in decline. Your remarks suggest, however, that not everyone is happy that you’ve returned. Meaning your granddaughter, I presume?”

“How disgustingly perceptive of you. I shall have to remember that. Yes, Gillian is not taking the transition well. And I won’t pretend that we’re not having problems because of that.”

“Because of her, er, status, or because she’s not terribly familiar with English manners and customs?”

Aunt Lucy sighed again, but this time it was the sound of exasperation. “Both, although her behavior is the more vexing of the two at this point.”

“I wouldn’t have thought that possible.” In a woman of the upper classes, the stain of illegitimacy was an almost insurmountable obstacle.

“Anything is possible with Gillian,” she said, shaking her head. “What do you remember of her?”

He thought back to his visit to Sicily over twelve years ago. Although he’d stayed with the Marburys at their charming villa on the outskirts of Palermo, he’d seen Gillian Dryden only a few times. She’d only been nine at the time, so there would have been little reason for her to be out in company. He’d also had the sense that Lord Marbury had objected to his granddaughter’s presence in their household. As a result, she’d been kept out of sight as much as possible.

“I remember that she was very quiet, like a little ghost hovering around the edges of the room.”

For a moment, Aunt Lucy looked stricken. “That is a very apt description. My husband did not approve of Gillian’s presence, although I’m happy to say that her stepfather was a great deal more accepting.”

Charles nodded. “Lady Julia married a member of the Italian nobility, as I recall. Count Paterini, I believe?”

“Yes. He was a wonderful man who treated Gillian like his own daughter. We were all devastated when he died so tragically. It was as hard on Gillian as it was on her mother.”

“I’m sorry to hear of your loss,” he said.

“Thank you. But I suppose there is little to be served by rehashing our family’s sad history. I should get to the point instead of wasting your valuable time.”

“I cannot help you until you do,” he said with a smile.

“Very well, then. I would like your help in teaching my granddaughter how to be a proper English lady instead of a wild, impetuous baggage who offends every person she meets.”


Charles eyed his aunt. She seemed dead serious. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I could not have heard you correctly.” “There is nothing wrong with your hearing. You are the only person in this family who can provide Gillian with the necessary social skills to survive in the ton.”

Good God. She wanted him to introduce her scandal of a granddaughter into British society. It was an insane idea. “Leaving aside the unusual nature of the request, what would be the end goal of such a project?”

“The usual end for genteel young ladies—marriage.”

It would be false modesty to deny that he had considerable social and political influence, but even he couldn’t perform miracles. “Pardon my plain speaking, but do I look like a matchmaker to you?” He didn’t bother to mask his incredulity.

“Don’t be such a ninny, Charles. As if any man would be up to the task,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Her mother and I will manage that element. But Gillian is, for lack of a better term, a gem in the rough. Your assistance is needed for one purpose only—to smooth out the rough edges and make her a suitable marriage prospect for a respectable gentleman.”

Mystified that his aunt would even consider so outrageous a project, he glanced around the handsomely appointed room, then ran a quick, practiced eye over her gown and first-rate jewels.

She laughed, clearly reading his mind. “We’re not out to catch a rich husband for her, Charles. Nor do we stand in need of financial support from you or anyone else. Gillian has a very generous dowry, bestowed on her by her stepfather. What we do require is your social capital and your support as the head of the family.”

So the girl was wealthy. That would certainly help—or at least encourage eligible suitors to overlook her unfortunate background. “That part shouldn’t be a problem, as long as she is presentable.”

“And therein lies the rub,” Aunt Lucy said dryly.

“Why? Her mother is a most charming, accomplished woman. Can she not take her own daughter in hand? With the help of the appropriate tutors and a dancing master, of course.”

“Unfortunately, Julia suffers from uncertain health. I do not wish to tax her anymore than I have to. And Gillian can be quite taxing.”

“What about a governess?”

“My granddaughter doesn’t want a governess. Never did,” Aunt Lucy said tersely.

“Most girls don’t. That doesn’t mean they don’t need one.”

“Regardless, it was next to impossible to find an acceptable English candidate willing to move to Sicily. The point is moot.”

“Aunt Lucy, forgive me, but this sounds like a mad scheme destined to fail.”

“It cannot fail,” she said in a tight voice. “You know Gillian’s difficult situation. Her security and happiness depend upon finding a good, respectable man who can look out for her. Protect her from . . . from all the pitfalls that lie in wait for a girl like her.”

God, what a thickhead he was. Of course that was the problem.

The ton had its share of roués, rakes, and others who engaged in less than respectable activities. Most of those men made a point of steering clear of gently bred girls, knowing there would be hell to pay if they dallied with them. But to a woman in Gillian Dryden’s position, they would be merciless. Every rake in London would try to drag her down into his sordid world, where she would be forever lost to her family and friends.

To such men, it would be a delicious challenge to ensnare a girl like Gillian—innocent, but by their foul standards, still fair game.

“Aunt Lucy, why in God’s name did you bring the poor girl back to England in the first place? Surely you understood what would happen.”

She chewed that over like a piece of moldy old bread. “We didn’t have a choice.”

Obviously, his aunt was holding something back, but Charles decided to let it go for now. If he did decide to help Miss Dryden—and that was a big if—he’d demand a full accounting of what he was up against. He hated surprises, and this little interview had already exceeded his tolerance for them.

“All right, perhaps we should be approaching this problem from a different angle,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me exactly which accomplishments and skills Miss Dryden does possess? Then I might be able to deduce how I can assist you.”

“Assist Gillian,” his aunt said stubbornly.

Though tutoring a grubby girl would hardly rate high on any man’s list of preferred activities, he gave her an encouraging nod.

“Well, she speaks three foreign languages and is quite adept in Latin, too.”

One generally didn’t need to parse verb tenses in a ballroom, but it was a start. “Is one of those languages French?”

“Of course. Gillian’s accent is excellent, I might add. She also speaks very good Spanish.”

“Splendid. What else?”

“She’s well versed in history and good at mathematics and the natural sciences. Her knowledge of animal husbandry is remarkable, in fact. That comes from spending most of her life on her stepfather’s country estate.”

Unless she intended to pursue a first at Oxford—or marry a farmer—those skills were more a hindrance than a help. But it sounded as if the girl had a good mind, which was nothing to sniff at. After all, there were men who had no desire to marry an ignorant woman, no matter how pretty she might be.

Charles was one of them. He had learned long ago how dangerous pretty could be.

“And what about feminine accomplishments? Does she play an instrument or sing?”

Aunt Lucy shook her head.

“Not an insurmountable problem,” he said. “Does she draw or paint?”


“How is her needlework?”

Aunt Lucy was beginning to look morose. “Gillian would rather stab herself in the eye with the needle than spend even a minute butchering an innocent piece of cloth.”

“A direct quote, I assume. Well, then, can she at least comport herself with grace on the dance floor?” He feared he already knew the answer.

“We hired a dancing master for the voyage back from Sicily, but it didn’t go well. Gillian insisted we dismiss him before we reached England or . . . ”

“Or?” he prompted.

Aunt Lucy’s expression suggested she’d just swallowed a nasty dose of physic. “Or she’d run him through.”

“You cannot be serious.”

“She wasn’t feeling well at the time, so it wasn’t entirely her fault. The lessons aggravated her shoulder injury.”

“What happened to her shoulder?”

Aunt Lucy’s gaze skittered off to the side. Then she took a deep breath and looked him directly in the eye. “She was shot. In a fight.”

He couldn’t repress a laugh. It couldn’t possibly be true.

“It is no joking matter,” Aunt Lucy said stiffly. “Gillian almost died.”

Charles was almost afraid to ask for details, but he’d gone too far to pull back now. And he had to admit to a morbid fascination at this point. “Who shot her?”

“Sicilian bandits. Very dangerous men, and exceedingly dangerous for Gillian.”

Before he could muster another question, the door opened, and a man strolled in—a man who resembled a bandit himself. But for his white shirt and cravat, he was dressed entirely in black, even down to his waistcoat. The look was completed by long black hair tied back over his shoulders and a faint scar that scored the side of his face.

He was a man who’d made his fortune running some of the most notorious gaming hells in London, one whose reputation as a scoundrel of the first order had only recently been mitigated by the sale of those hells and his marriage to the niece of a well-regarded viscount. Griffin Steele, bastard son of the Duke of Cumberland. Which made him the half brother of Gillian Dryden.

Good God. The situation was even worse than he thought.

“Ah, there you are, Griffin,” Aunt Lucy said with an affectionate smile. “Please come in and meet our guest.”

Charles sighed and came to his feet. “Now I know why you need my help,” he muttered.

Gillian Dryden was a walking scandal just by virtue of her existence. With Griffin Steele in the mix, the gossips would be delirious with joy. It was a social powder keg in the making, waiting for a spark.

“What did you say, Charles?” Aunt Lucy asked.

“Nothing, ma’am.”

“Then allow me to introduce Griffin Steele. I’m quite sure you’ve deduced his relationship to Gillian.”

“With thundering clarity,” Charles said. Steele, the rotter, simply flashed him what could only be described as an evil grin.

Aunt Lucy ignored the comment. “Griffin, allow me to introduce you to His Grace, the Duke of Leverton. Your Grace, Mr. Griffin Steele.”

If a bow could be described as ironic, the flourishing one that Steele put on display fit the bill. Charles returned him a brief bow, fully aware that the man’s blood was bluer than his.

Aunt Lucy stood and took Charles’s hand in a firm clasp. “Leverton is going to help us with Gillian. I can’t think of anyone better able to do so.”

Steele gave him a slow, insolent perusal. While Charles was taller, Steele was whipcord lean with the air of someone who would just as soon cut your throat as shake your hand. Having been raised by a man who’d mastered the fine art of intimidation, Charles found Steele’s glare nothing more than annoying.

“His Grace doesn’t look too enthusiastic about the notion, if you ask me,” Griffin finally drawled.

Charles gave him a polite smile. “Funny, I don’t recall asking.”

Aunt Lucy’s scowl suggested they were acting like ill-behaved schoolboys.

“Griffin, would you fetch Charles a brandy, and yourself as well?” she asked. “I’m sure you could both use one.”

“Your guest seems quite at home,” Charles said, watching Steele stroll over to the drinks cabinet and select two glasses.

Aunt Lucy raised a haughty brow. “I count Griffin as a member of the family. As does Gillian.”

“I would assume so, since they are brother and sister,” Charles calmly replied. “But you certainly aren’t making things easier on yourself.”

“Because Gillian and I are both bastards?” Steele said, returning with the brandies. “That’s not an insurmountable obstacle. I’m living proof of that.”

“It’s much more difficult for a woman to overcome that particular impediment,” Charles said. “And since we’re speaking so frankly—”

“I always speak frankly,” Steele interrupted with a cold smile. “That way my intent is perfectly clear.”

“Then in the interest of being perfectly clear,” Charles said, “let me point out that your close relationship with Miss Dryden is unlikely to be of advantage to her. Rather the opposite, in fact.”

“Agreed,” Aunt Lucy said. “But since there is nothing to be done about that, we must simply work around it.”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings,” Charles said. “But I believe it well-nigh impossible for you to achieve your goals in London. You might have more luck in one of the smaller spa towns, where standards are less exacting. Tunbridge Wells, perhaps.”

“That is not acceptable to me or to Gillian’s mother,” his aunt replied in a frosty tone.

“Or to me,” Steele added.

Charles allowed himself an exasperated sigh. “Aunt Lucy—”

“Charles, please listen. If we had another choice, we would take it. But we must find my granddaughter a suitable husband, one who is strong and powerful enough to protect her. Her position in life, the type of girl she is . . . ” She paused, her lips thinning into a distressed line.

“Yes?” Charles asked gently.

“Gillian is very vulnerable,” she said. “More than I like to admit, and certainly more than she will admit. For all her strength and courage, she has craved male affection and approval ever since her beloved stepfather passed away. I don’t need to tell you where such a vulnerability could lead.”

“I understand.”

“I will not have my granddaughter sliding into the demimonde, either through her reckless behavior or because some wretched man takes advantage of her.”

Charles frowned. “Has anyone tried?”

Aunt Lucy nodded. “I have dealt with threats of that nature in the past, but I’m getting old. I will not be around forever.”

“I would never allow it to happen to Gillian,” Griffin said in a hard voice.

“The problem is that you would do such a splendid job of protecting her,” Aunt Lucy said, “that no man would have the nerve to come near her.”

“Well, the girl needs someone to look out for her,” Griffin said. “She’s too bloody reckless. It’s only a matter of time before she triggers a full-blown scandal that will sink her reputation for good.”

“Charles, if you don’t come to our aid, I don’t know what we’ll do,” Aunt Lucy said, sounding rather desperate.

He wanted to say no, but . . .

A Penley always does the right thing.

His father’s voice echoed in his head. Charles felt sure, however, that the old man had not envisioned this particular situation. Still, Aunt Lucy and even the mysterious Gillian were family.

“Perhaps you’d better tell me everything,” he said.

As Aunt Lucy talked, Charles experienced a growing consternation. To say that Miss Dryden was a catalogue of social disasters was a massive understatement. In addition to threatening the dancing master, she’d gone riding by herself in Green Park, strolled past White’s in the middle of the afternoon—again, by herself—and inadvertently insulted an ancient and very distinguished marquess at the one small party her family had dared take her to.

Apparently, that was just the beginning.

“For God’s sake, Aunt Lucy,” he broke in, “even I cannot groom a savage. What were you thinking to bring her here in the first place?”

Steele leaned forward, his gaze turning flat and cold. “Careful, Your Grace, or you’re likely to end up with my blade between your ribs.”

“Oh, please,” Charles said in a dismissive voice.

“I brought her to England to save her life,” Aunt Lucy said. “She may not be up to your exacting standards, Charles, but I could not let her die at the hands of ruthless brigands. That would surely have been her fate if we’d stayed in Sicily.”

“Ah, yes,” he said. “About those bandits. Why the devil—”

His aunt shook her head and came to her feet. Charles and Steele quickly rose in response.

“Forgive me for wasting your time, Your Grace,” she said with a resigned dignity. “I see now it was too much to ask of you. I only ask that you keep these matters private for Gillian’s sake.”

Mentally sighing, Charles took her hand. “No, Aunt, it is I who must ask your forgiveness. My manners indeed went begging, and I am sorry for it. Let us just say that I was surprised into forgetting myself.”

She eyed him, looking doubtful, troubled, and weary.

“But there’s one thing I still don’t understand,” he said. “Why is Miss Dryden so resistant to learning conventional behavior?”

His aunt shrugged. “She seems to equate conforming to acceptable standards with training a monkey to perform tricks. Pointless was how she described it.”

“There is nothing pointless about civilized behavior,” Charles said. “Or in treating our fellow creatures with appropriate dignity.”

God, that sounded priggish even for him. Steele’s derisive snort signaled he thought so too.

“I’ve told her that a thousand times,” Aunt Lucy said. “But only her stepfather could get her to see reason, I’m sorry to say. Gillian had a great regard for him, both as her adopted parent and as patriarch of the family.”

“How boringly traditional of her,” Griffin commented.

“Well, she was raised in Sicily,” Aunt Lucy replied. “They’re sticklers for that sort of thing. Which is another reason why I thought of you, Charles. You are indisputably the head of our family, as well as a duke. I’m hoping the combination will generate at least a modicum of compliance on Gillian’s part.”

As Charles looked into his aunt’s pleading gaze, he found it impossible to say no. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to meet her. See if she would be amenable to taking some, ah, guidance from me.”

“Good luck with that,” Steele said in a sardonic tone.

Aunt Lucy flashed Charles a relieved smile. “She’s really a very nice girl, despite her rough edges. I’m sure you’ll like her.”

Charles kept his considerable doubts to himself.

“Griffin, will you ring for the footman?” Aunt Lucy asked. “He can fetch Gillian.”

“I know exactly where she is,” Griffin said, striding to the door. When he pulled it open, a woman tumbled into the room, landing on her knees.

“Confound it,” she muttered. She hopped to her feet in a swift, contained movement and flicked the skirts of her gown back in place over her slim figure. She gazed directly at Charles with big, sherry-colored eyes, apparently not the least bit embarrassed by her outrageous entrance.

“So, you’re the one who’s going to tame the savage,” she said in a crisp voice that carried the hint of an exotic accent. “What fun for both of us.”


Tumbling down at the feet of the high and mighty Duke of Leverton was not how Gillian had planned their first meeting. Lately, however, most of her plans had displayed an irritating tendency to go awry.

Her grandmother glared at her. “I see you’ve been eavesdropping again. I do hope none of the servants saw you in such an inelegant position.”

“Parsons did,” Gillian said. “He looked appropriately appalled.”

Actually, the butler had simply looked resigned, evidently getting used to her.

“Really, my dear, I wish you would stop skulking about, listening in on people’s private conversations,” Grandmamma said. “It’s in such poor taste.”

“How else am I supposed to know what people are saying when I’m obviously the topic under discussion?” Gillian asked.

“Perhaps you might try asking them,” Leverton said in a deep, cultured voice perfectly calibrated with sarcasm.

Gillian crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a slow perusal. “I don’t recall asking for your opinion on the subject. Then again, I’m a savage, so what do I know?”

Irritation tightened his aristocratic features, but then a polite mask dropped in place. Gillian had to give him credit. She’d wager he was unused to young ladies falling at his feet and compounding the awkward situation by insulting him. Then again, perhaps he was used to women falling at his feet. He was certainly both rich and handsome enough to elicit that sort of swooning.

Insulting him, though? From what she’d heard, people went to extraordinary lengths to court his favor.

“Since you were listening at the door, Miss Dryden, you must know that I also apologized for my rude behavior,” the duke said.

“Not to me. Not that I care one blasted bit if you do one way or the other.”

Her grandmother let out a heavy sigh, and even Griffin shook his head. The duke, however, simply regarded her with a perfectly unruffled manner, as if she were some recently discovered species, only vaguely interesting. Gillian began to get quite a bad feeling that she’d finally met her match.

She’d been hearing for weeks how Leverton was the key to solving Gillian’s little problem, as her family called it. According to them, he was perfectly suited to guide her into society’s good graces, and perfectly capable of managing away even the most troublesome elements of her background.

He must be a bloody perfect miracle worker, if that was the case.

As she cautiously eyed him, she couldn’t help concluding that he did seem rather perfect in some respects. He was certainly prettier than she was, with thick, tawny-colored hair, striking blue eyes, and a face straight off a Greek statue. And he was certainly a good deal more stylish than she was, although that was true of almost anyone. But even she could appreciate the way his beautifully tailored coat showcased his broad shoulders, and how his breeches clung to his muscled legs with nary a wrinkle. As for his cravat, it was practically a work of art.

In fact, he was so damn perfect it made her stomach hurt. She’d been drawn in by perfection before, and it had almost ruined her.

“Stop trying to shock us, Gillian,” her grandmother said. “You know quite well it won’t work.”

Au contraire, Lady Marbury,” Griffin said. “I find myself quite riven with horror.”

He flashed Gillian the conspiratorial smile that always made her feel someone truly did understand her. And, more important, Griffin didn’t find her wanting, unlike apparently everyone else in London. She couldn’t wait to shake the dirt of England from her boots and return to Sicily—the sooner, the better.

“Miss Dryden is quite right,” Leverton said.

Gillian frowned. “I am? About what, exactly?”

He slowly crossed the room to her. He didn’t prowl, precisely, but something in the way he moved made her think of . . . a wolf, perhaps. Slipping silently through the night as he hunted in silence.

An exceedingly clever wolf, she guessed. One with very sharp teeth well suited for ripping apart a person’s carefully ordered life.

Leverton’s height forced her to tilt back her head to meet his gaze, and she found herself staring into eyes a beautiful shade of cobalt. She had to admit they were really quite amazing.

“Please believe me, Miss Dryden, when I say I meant no insult. I was merely surprised by a few details regarding your situation. It caused me to forget my manners.” A glint of amusement lurked in his gaze.

Her stomach twisted at the notion that he might be laughing at her. But when he smiled, her stomach seemed to untwist and start dancing with butterflies.

“Come, my dear girl,” he said in his beautifully cultured voice. “I beg you to forgive me before I’m compelled to do something drastic—like throw myself at your feet. That would be embarrassing for both of us.”

“Bloody coxcomb,” Griffin muttered.

Leverton ignored the aside, keeping his attention on Gillian. Her heart began to thump and heat crawled up her neck. “Oh, very well,” she grumbled. “I forgive you.”

“You are most gracious,” Leverton said. “Now, perhaps we can start over and leave all this awkwardness behind.”

“What a splendid idea,” Grandmamma said. “Your Grace, my granddaughter, Miss Gillian Dryden.”

The duke bowed as if she hadn’t just tumbled through the door, and as if they hadn’t just spent the last few minutes insulting each other.

“Gillian, I have the pleasure of introducing you to the Duke of Leverton,” Grandmamma added.

“Good Lord. I know who he is,” Gillian replied, not hiding her exasperation.

“Then make him a curtsey, my dear. A proper one.”

Repressing the urge to roll her eyes—one curtsey was as good as another, as far as she was concerned—Gillian dipped down and quickly came up.

Leverton’s eyebrows ticked up. On him, she rather expected it was the equivalent of a horrified gasp.

Well, nobody ever said she was graceful, at least when it came to that sort of silliness.

“Hmm,” he said. “We’ll have to work on that.”

“It’s all nonsense, if you ask me,” Gillian said. “All this bowing and scraping like a peasant before his master. Perhaps you’d like me to polish your boots while I’m at it.”

His disapproving gaze made her blink, and she almost took a step back. This was a man who did not like being crossed.

“Gillian Dryden, you will cease acting like heathen,” her grandmother rapped out.

“I had no idea you had revolutionary tendencies, Miss Dryden,” the duke said. “How very interesting. And no, I would not like you to polish my boots. My valet would not approve.”

Now he sounded bored. And if he was bored, he would be more likely to go away and leave her alone. Splendid.

Still, she couldn’t help feeling irked by his dismissive tone and demeanor. The Duke of Leverton was certainly a snob and probably a fop. She didn’t know which was worse.

“Why would you think I have revolutionary tendencies, sir?” she added in a sugary-sweet voice. “Is it because I think I’m as good as anyone else, despite my unfortunate social status?”

Gillian braced herself for the expected put-down. She’d grown used to being labeled a prince’s by-blow, or worse. It was best to simply accept it and then do her best to avoid anyone who looked down on her because of her parentage. She’d learned that hard lesson a long time ago.

The duke studied her for a few moments before replying. “Of course you are.”

“Of course I am what?” she asked.

“As good as anyone else. Any sensible person must think so,” he said.

“That eliminates most of the ton,” Griffin said.

Leverton seemed to weigh her brother’s droll comment. “I believe your assessment is too pessimistic, Steele. Shall we say, perhaps fifty percent?”

The exchange was so silly that Gillian had to laugh. Leverton’s eyebrows ticked up again, but not, she thought, with disapproval. Then he flashed her another dazzling smile that made her feel like the floor had just tipped sideways.

“That’s much better,” he said.

She shook her head, exasperated. “I don’t understand any of this.”

“Never mind.” Leverton glanced at Gillian’s grandmother. “Madam, would you be averse to my asking Miss Dryden a few questions? To get the lay of the land, as it were.”

“You mean to figure out how hopeless I truly am,” Gillian said.

Griffin took her arm and steered her to sit with her grandmother. “Might as well get it over with, old girl.”

“Easy enough for you to say,” she retorted. “No one cares if you’re a royal by-blow. No one ever cares about that sort of thing when it comes to men.”

“Not exactly true,” Griffin said. “I had my problems, although I admit the situation is trickier for you than it was for me.”

“But not insurmountable, as I think we all agreed a few minutes ago,” the duke said, resuming his seat.

“I was not in the room at the time of that discussion,” Gillian said.

“But you were listening in,” the duke responded. “I will, therefore, assume you to be in agreement with the rest of us.”

Confound it. The man was all but unflappable. “That remains to be seen.”

His glance shifted to her grandmother before returning to her. “Miss Dryden, am I to understand that you do not wish to be accepted into polite society? Surely that cannot be correct.”

“Of course not.” Grandmamma pinned Gillian with a look that all but dared her to disagree. “Is it, my child?”

Drat. She was caught in her own trap.

Her mother and grandmother had already made it clear that her introduction into British society was happening regardless of her wishes. Refusing to cooperate would hardly achieve the desired outcome—her family’s agreement to let her return to Sicily. They genuinely believed she could make a go of things here in England, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

They also believed that to send her home was tantamount to a death sentence. Gillian didn’t agree. Things might be a little sticky for a while, but she’d find a way to manage the situation. She always did.

“Of course I wish to be accepted into polite society.” She adopted an earnest expression as she gazed at the duke. “Is that not the wish of any right-thinking English girl?”

“I’m not interested in other girls,” he said bluntly. “I want to know what you think about it.”

Gillian waved an airy hand. “No need to worry about me, Your Grace. I am all compliance.”

Her grandmother made a small, choking sound.

“I’m thrilled to hear it,” Leverton replied. “Then shall we proceed?”

“Of course.”

“I understand that you speak several languages, and your English is excellent. That will certainly help smooth the way.”

Gillian’s brief episode of compliance evaporated. “I’m not a moron, sir. In fact, I suspect I’m much better educated than the average English girl. From what I can see, most of them are complete ninnies.”

“Gillian,” her grandmother warned.

“Sorry, Grandmamma, but you know it’s true. Ten minutes with the likes of Lady Allister’s daughters is enough to prove that point.”

Lady Allister was an old friend of Gillian’s mother’s, and Gillian had been forced to endure two gruesome outings with her ladyship and her daughters. The girls had twittered endlessly like a pair of demented sparrows, interested in nothing but clothes, men, and the latest gossip.

They’d also made little effort to conceal the fact that they found Gillian beneath their notice, treating her with disdain whenever Mamma and Lady Allister weren’t looking. It had taken every ounce of discipline she possessed not to box their ears. Only her mother’s anxious desire for Gillian to make friends had held her back.

“I take your point about Lady Allister’s unfortunate daughters,” Leverton said. “They are a remarkably dreary pair of girls.”

“Oh, um, thank you,” Gillian said, momentarily flummoxed. “I did try to give them the benefit of the doubt, as I told Grandmamma.”

“You called them twits and told them to stop screeching like banshees,” her grandmother said. “In public.”

“Well, they kicked up the most ridiculous fuss,” Gillian said, “simply because a spider crawled up the younger Miss Allister’s sleeve. You’d think the French had launched a full-scale invasion of London.”

“You didn’t help matters by taking off your hat and striking her with it,” her grandmother replied.

“I was simply trying to knock the blasted spider off her dress. For all the good it did me,” Gillian muttered.

“So, that’s what happened,” Griffin said.

“Oh, dear,” sighed Grandmamma. “You heard about that incident?”

“I expect half of London did,” Griffin said with a grin. “It isn’t every day that young ladies attack each other in Gunter’s.”

“I did not attack her,” Gillian protested. “I was trying to help her. It’s not my fault she toppled over and sent the table flying.”

All the ices and drinks had been dumped onto Lady Allister’s ample lap. The resulting shrieks had been so loud that Gillian’s ears had rung for hours.

“Since you didn’t hear about the incident, Charles, perhaps it’s not as bad as we initially thought,” Grandmamma said, looking hopeful.

The duke had been staring at Gillian with what looked like horrified fascination, but he quickly pulled himself together. “I only returned to London a few days ago. I’ve been locked up in my offices since and am not yet privy to the latest gossip.”

“Oh, dear,” her grandmother said with a sigh.

The duke gave her a sympathetic grimace. “Never mind, Aunt Lucy. Most everyone agrees with Miss Dryden’s trenchant assessment of the Allister girls, so I don’t think the damage will be acute.” He shot Gillian a stern look. “As long as you refrain from similar incidents.”

“I promise,” she said in a pious voice. Unfortunately, her vow was undercut by the look exchanged by Griffin and her grandmother.

“You might as well tell me,” the duke said in a resigned voice.

“There was that incident in Hyde Park the other day, when she went for an early morning ride,” Grandmamma said.

“Not by herself, I hope,” the duke said.

“Of course not,” Gillian said. “I had a groom with me.” Her grandmother had seen to that. The servants barely let Gillian out of their sight.

“Then what was the problem?”

“She wore breeches,” her grandmother said.

Leverton blinked slowly.

“It’s the only way I can ride astride. I hate sidesaddle,” Gillian explained.

“Did anyone see you?” Leverton asked.

“Not so as to recognize me,” she said. “So I don’t see what the problem is.”

His gaze went cool again. “I’m sure you know exactly what the problem is, so please don’t insult my intelligence, Miss Dryden.”

She felt her cheeks flush. Of course she’d known what the problem was, which was why she’d gone out riding early in the morning. She truly didn’t want to embarrass her family, but that didn’t mean she didn’t chafe against the restrictions placed on her—or circumvent them, on occasion.

Griffin stirred. “Speaking of insults, I’d advise you to address my sister in a more respectful tone. An offense to her is an offense to me. Believe me, you don’t want that.”

Leverton didn’t seem the slightest bit discomposed by her brother’s threat. In fact, the two men commenced staring at each other in a way that raised the hairs on the back of Gillian’s neck.

“It’s fine,” she hastily said. “I’m sure the duke didn’t mean to insult me. Did you, sir?”

He held Griffin’s gaze for a moment longer, then looked at her. “Of course not, Miss Dryden.”

“Good, then let’s continue.” The sooner this appalling interview came to an end, the better.

“Lady Marbury has given me a fairly good understanding of your education,” he said. “It sounded, however, as if you’ve lacked sufficient tutoring in the traditional female accomplishments.”

“You mean like drawing and needlework? Sorry, I never saw the point of it.”

She could stitch a shirt and cook a stew with the best of them. Those were useful tasks that served a purpose. But wasting one’s time on producing decorative samplers or boring landscapes? She’d always had better things to do with her time.

“And what about music? Do you play an instrument or sing, or did you not see the point in those activities, either?”

Gillian liked music, especially opera, but she’d never had the patience to learn how to play. And the less said about her singing voice, the better. She gave a shrug.

“My dear girl,” Leverton said, sounding exasperated. “Do you have no hobbies or leisurely pastimes at all?”

“Actually, yes,” she said. “I’m quite good at hunting bandits.”

She could barely hear the duke grinding his teeth over her grandmother’s groan.


Standing in the middle of the path, Gillian studied Charles with a bemused expression, as if he were speaking Hindi.

“Why the devil—” She stopped, pressing her lips together when he raised his eyebrows. “Why in heaven’s name would you take us to see an ornamental dairy in the middle of London?” She punctuated her marginally more polite comment by rolling her eyes.

Aunt Lucy had been correct—Gillian Dryden was a social catastrophe in the making. Charles wondered again why he’d agreed to tutor her in the fine art of polite behavior.

After Gillian’s quip yesterday about hunting bandits, the discussion had gone rapidly downhill, only ending when Aunt Lucy ordered them to stop behaving like children. That had been an accurate assessment of them, especially Griffin Steele. He’d threatened to run Charles through with a blade if Charles made one more insulting comment about his sister. Steele’s threat had come when Charles suggested that Gillian’s lowbrow behavior was more suited to a tavern brawl than a polite discussion. Gillian had retorted that she’d find a brawl a great deal more entertaining than talking to him.

When Aunt Lucy had finally reduced them to grumbling acquiescence, she’d looked at Charles with a woeful expression and released him from any obligation to Gillian or the family.

“You mustn’t stay a moment longer and subject yourself to this unfortunate scene,” she’d said, fluttering her lace hankie at him as if waving a flag of surrender. She’d ended on a little quaver that Charles suspected was entirely feigned.

Clearly affected by her grandmother’s artful performance, Gillian had blushed pink and bitten her lower lip. Still, she held her tongue, neither apologizing nor contradicting her grandmother. Steele obviously didn’t want Charles there by that point either, so they’d given him the perfect out.

Though he’d had every intention of taking the opportunity to escape from the Marbury Madhouse, he’d found himself settling back in his chair, thinking for a minute or two. Then he’d made some inane comment about growing pains and how he knew they’d all get along just fine. His about-face had stunned Gillian and Steele, but not, he suspected, his aunt.

Aunt Lucy had exploited his weak point—his infernal pride. If there was one thing Charles hated, it was the notion that there was someone he couldn’t bend to his will. He came from a long line of warriors and politicians, stretching back to William the Conqueror. Nobody ever told a Penley what he could or couldn’t do. It was like waving a flag in front of a bull, and yesterday it had worked like a charm on Charles.

He touched Gillian’s elbow and got her walking again. “Many visitors to London come to see the ornamental dairy. And I thought you might enjoy seeing Green Park and its various attractions.”

“You obviously don’t know me very well.” She glared at the pretty little farm building as if its very presence was an offense against nature. “The whole thing is ridiculous, but I suppose nothing should surprise me about Londoners.”

“Miss Dryden, it’s usually not the done thing to berate a gentleman when he’s kind enough to take a young lady on an outing. Instead, she displays a becoming gratitude by showing her enthusiasm for the activity, even if such enthusiasm is partly feigned.”

“Lie, in other words.” She crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the large feather muff that dangled from one wrist. It hung down like some strange animal, making Charles wonder why she’d carted it along in the first place. Fortunately, it was the only flaw in her otherwise elegant ensemble. A dark green, close-fitting pelisse displayed her tall and naturally graceful figure to excellent advantage, and was matched by a dashing grenadier-style hat that sat at a rakish angle on her glossy, dark curls.

There was no doubt Gillian was a lovely girl, though not in the usual style. She had high, sharp cheekbones and a determined chin, countered by a surprisingly lush mouth and big, sherry-colored eyes that dominated her face. It was an enticing combination that would attract a fair amount of masculine attention, if she didn’t scare off every potential suitor.

He steered her off the Broad Walk onto one of the paths to the dairy, throwing a glance over his shoulder to check on the progress of the Contessa Paterini and her maid. They lagged behind, strolling at a pace that was little more than a crawl. Gillian’s mother was serving as chaperone on this most harmless of outings. Given the rumors that were already beginning to swirl about Gillian, Charles wasn’t taking any chances. For the next several weeks he would do all he could to ensure that not a shred of scandal could attach to either Gillian or himself.

Good luck with that, old son.

The contessa gave them a cheery little wave. “Don’t worry about us, my dears. Maria and I will meet you at the dairy.”

Gillian turned around. “Are you all right, Mamma? Would you like to stop and rest for a few minutes?”

“We’re fine, darling. We’ll just toddle along at our own pace, won’t we?” She smiled at her companion, a stout Italian woman who regarded London in general and Green Park in particular with morose disapproval. The poor woman seemed to have only a few words of English, so the move to England must have been particularly difficult for her.

“Well, if you’re sure,” Gillian said.

“Perfectly. You must stop worrying about me and enjoy yourself.”

It was clear, however, that Gillian worried about her mother a great deal.

The contessa was a faded beauty with a gentle, fragile manner that spoke to both her kind nature and poor health. She was much changed since the last time Charles had seen her, years ago in Sicily. Then, she’d been a vivacious young matron, basking in the love of a devoted husband and enjoying a gay life in Palermo. Her spirit had vanished after her husband’s murder. As far as Charles could tell, the contessa now drifted through life, content to let Lady Marbury or Gillian make all the decisions. The contessa clearly had no influence over her daughter’s behavior, only clucking ineffectually with distress when Gillian said or did something outrageous.

Their relationship was entirely upended, as far as Charles could tell. When he’d arrived this morning to escort them to the park, Gillian had fussed over her mother like a cat with a lone kitten. He’d finally gotten them moving by promising to bring them straight home if the contessa displayed any sign of fatigue. Even then, Gillian only agreed to venture forth into the wilds of Mayfair after standing outside on the steps for a good three minutes to make sure that the air was neither too damp nor too cold for her mamma.

“Come, Miss Dryden, your mother is in good hands. The weather today is quite mild, and I’m sure the fresh air will do her good.”

“I doubt it,” Gillian said. “The weather’s been positively beastly since we arrived. I always knew England was cold and damp, but this is ridiculous. It’s May already, and we’re all freezing our ar—” She cut herself off with an adorable grimace. “Sorry. What I meant to say is that it’s already May, and it seems unseasonably cool.”

“That was a commendably dull comment on the weather. Well done. One would think you a born Londoner.”

She flashed him a smile that transformed her face from pretty to entrancing. “I’m not a complete dolt. In fact, I have it on good authority that I’m actually quite teachable.”

“On whose good authority?”

“My own,” she said in a droll voice.

Charles had to laugh. She clearly could be charming when she chose to be. She also possessed a surprising degree of fortitude for one so young. That was another reason he hadn’t been able to say no to her tutoring. Simply by being born, she’d been forced to share her mother’s shame, and it would trail behind her like a noxious cloud for the rest of her life.

Not if I can help it.

“The English prattle on about the weather all the time,” Gillian said, “and not simply because it’s a safe topic. If you ask me, you’re all obsessed with it.”

“Spoken like a woman who has spent her life basking in a sunny clime. If you had to live in a damp, drafty house with a chimney that invariably smoked, you’d be obsessed too.”

When she smiled up at him and took his arm, he almost jerked from the shock. It was the first time she’d willingly touched him. It somehow felt . . . important.

“Actually, we think about the weather quite a lot in Sicily,” she said as they strolled. “It’s bloody hot in the summer, and if we don’t get enough rain, it can be disastrous for the farmers.”

“Substitute ghastly for bloody, and you’ve made another unexceptionable comment. I’m quite amazed at our ability to carry on a rational conversation, as if we were two ordinary civilized people.”

“I did promise Grandmamma I would try. However, a disgustingly wealthy duke strolling about Green Park with the illegitimate daughter of a prince doesn’t strike me as very ordinary.”

“Perhaps not, but I would suggest you refer to neither my wealth nor your parentage in polite company. Or any company, for that matter.”

“Yes, I suppose it would be horribly vulgar to acknowledge my natural father in any way.”

“Almost as vulgar as referring to the state of a man’s purse.”

She laughed, a full-throated, delightful sound, warm and infectious. Charles had no doubt it would draw men to her in a snap. His duty was to make sure they were the right kind of men.

“No one seemed to have such delicate compunctions in Sicily,” she said. “All the aristocrats I knew talked about wealth a great deal, especially the women. That isn’t surprising, I suppose, since they’re usually dependent on male largesse.” She shook her head. “I’m so glad I’m not.”

“Did you know many aristocrats in Sicily?” He’d formed the impression that she’d been kept very much out of the way by her family, especially when Lord Marbury was alive.

“Enough to know what I’m talking about,” she said in a defensive tone.

He would lay bets there was a story behind that comment. But she obviously had no desire to talk about it, and he really wasn’t interested in knowing.

Or so he told himself.

“I assure you that the average English aristocrat is as obsessed with money as his counterparts in other countries,” he said. “We just have the odd notion that one doesn’t talk about money. We’d rather just spend it.”

“Most everyone worries about money, now that I think about it.”

“Especially if you don’t have it,” he said dryly.

“There are a lot of people in Sicily who don’t,” she said with a frown. “The poverty in the countryside is appalling.”

“It’s the same here. Now that the soldiers are returning home from the war, it’s difficult for them to find work.” Even on his own prosperous estates, he’d had trouble absorbing the men who’d returned to their villages and tenant farms after the long conflict.

“You seem to be doing all right. But I imagine disgustingly wealthy dukes generally do make out rather well.” She flashed him a quick smile that took the sting out of the comment.

He held up a finger. “Vulgar, remember?”

“I stand corrected. What topics may I properly engage in, Your Grace?”

Charles glanced over his shoulder. Contessa Paterini and her woman had fallen even farther behind.

“We’ll get to that in a minute.” He steered her to a small enclosure next to the dairy, where a few cows ambled about and grazed. “There’s something I need to ask you first.”

Gillian lounged gracefully against the fence, negligently swinging the muff that dangled from her wrist. Charles made a mental note to work on her posture at another time.

“Fire away,” she said.

He repressed a sigh. One problem at a time.

“It’s not an easy topic to discuss,” he said, “and I have no wish to embarrass you. But since we’re already talking about dukes, I thought I’d better ask you about . . . ” He hesitated, searching for a delicate way to phrase it.

“My esteemed father, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland? Is that what you want to ask me about?” She still leaned casually against the fence, still swinging her purse. But the air around her now seemed charged with tension.

“I know it’s awkward,” he said. “But I need to know how things stand with him.”

“It’s not awkward for me at all,” she said in a cool voice. “Surely you know that I’ve never met the bastard.”

“Miss Dryden . . . ”

“Oh, wait,” she said in a musing tone. “I forgot. Technically, I’m the bastard, not my natural father. I suppose I shouldn’t confuse the point.”

Charles resisted the impulse to rub his temples. He could sympathize with her feelings about her father, but her near-fatal inability to guard her speech would surely be her undoing. Though Cumberland was not a popular man, he was a royal duke. The sins of the father would be visited upon the child if she didn’t learn to hold her tongue.

“I readily understand your feelings, but might I suggest that you refrain from using such terms to describe him?”

“How about poltroon, then? Or loose fish? Oh, I know—complete bounder. Will any of those do?” She smiled brightly at him, as if she were trying to be helpful.

“I would suggest Your Highness, or perhaps sir, if you are forced to address him or refer to him. I’m hopeful that you won’t be placed in such a position, but we must be prepared for it. While it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be introduced to him, you may one day find yourself at a ball or social event where he’s present.”

Gillian stood up straight. Anxiety darkened her big eyes as she glanced down the path toward her mother. The contessa had paused to speak with two little girls on an outing with their nursemaids. “You’re worried about what people might say to me about him, aren’t you? That if they make mean-spirited remarks, it will set me off.”

He nodded.

“People can say whatever they want about him—or me, for that matter. I’m used to it.” Gillian gave him a rueful smile. “And despite what you may think, I do know when to hold my tongue. My grandfather saw to my tutoring in that regard.”

Charles could believe it. From what he’d known of Lord Marbury, those lessons would not have been easy on her. It had been no secret that he’d vehemently objected to his daughter’s decision to keep her illegitimate child, and that the earl had been furious that the resulting scandal had forced them to leave England. Even though he’d subsequently gone on to have a distinguished career as a British diplomat in the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Marbury had never forgiven either his daughter or his granddaughter for subjecting the family to such humiliation.

“It’s a useful skill, even if the learning of it is often painful,” Charles said quietly. “I, too, had to learn how to curb my tongue. I won’t pretend it was easy.”

She threw him a sharp look, as if weighing his statement for truth. Then she nodded. “I didn’t like it much either. And I have to admit that I sometimes forget the lessons.” She huffed out a quiet laugh. “With predictable results, I’m sorry to say.”

His sympathy stirred. Gillian could be brash, but she also had a sweet, self-deprecating manner he found enormously appealing.

“The best way to handle gossip or ill-mannered remarks is to feign ignorance,” he said. “Simply give a vague smile and excuse yourself from the discussion.”

“You mean I shouldn’t plant them a facer or threaten to shoot them?” she asked, opening her eyes wide.

“I know it’s hard to fathom, but Englishwomen don’t generally engage in fisticuffs or duels.”

“How boring of them. I suppose I’ll have to find other ways to avenge myself on the gossips of London.” She lifted an eyebrow. “What do you think of poison?”

He was tempted to laugh. “Miss Dryden, it’s fine for you to engage in this sort of raillery with me or with intimate family, but—”

She waved a dismissive hand to interrupt. “I know, I know. If the situation should ever arise, I promise to be a paragon of good manners and stupidity. All of London can insult me until the cows come home, and I won’t say a word. I’ll simply smile and commence speaking of the weather.”

“Why does that promise fill me with more alarm than reassurance?”

She chuckled, then glanced past him. Her smile faded. “I do mean it when I say I don’t care if the gossips prattle on about me. But I worry about Mamma. She’s very sensitive, you know.”

Gillian tapped her chest, right over her heart. The gesture had the unfortunate effect of bringing his attention to the gentle swell of her breasts under her close-fitting garment. She wasn’t a buxom girl by any means, but she had more than enough curves to attract any man’s attention. They’d gotten his attention.

He jerked his gaze upward. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to notice his inappropriate regard.

“It upsets Mamma when people say something nasty about me,” Gillian said. “I won’t pick fights on my own behalf, but if they insult her, I won’t be held accountable for my actions.”

Her loyalty was commendable, but hardly helpful.

“Then I suggest you let me handle any problems that may arise.” When she started to object, he held up a restraining hand. “I’m quite capable of doing so, and a good deal more effectively than you could. Your grandmother and I should be able to keep any gossip to a whisper that will fade away once you’ve been out for a few weeks. Your task is to exercise self-restraint. If you do, eventually the ton will become bored with you and move on.”

She started to cross her arms over her chest, but got caught up in the ribbons of her muff. Blowing out an impatient breath, she tugged it off her wrist and looped it on the fence post behind her. When Charles raised his eyebrows with polite incredulity, she either didn’t get the point or chose to ignore it.

Subtlety was not her strong point.

“Do you also have power over the weather?” she asked. “Perhaps you can arrange for a sunny day, for once.”

He smiled. “I’ll see what I can do. Miss Dryden, please trust that I can handle any gossip about you or your mother, as I trust that you will have the good sense to allow me to do so. You have already told me that you are quite capable of keeping the peace when necessary. I expect nothing less of you.”

“Do you think you have the right to order me about because you’re a duke? I don’t care a fig about that.”

“As head of our family, I have your mother’s and your grandmother’s support in this matter. I’m sure they wish you to accord me the same level of trust.”

It seemed a bit risky to play the head of the family card this early in the game, but, somewhat to his surprise, it seemed to work. Gillian fumed for a few moments and then gave a grudging nod. “Oh, very well. But never assume I’ll sit quietly by while people insult my mother.” She reached out and poked him in the chest. “I expect you to deal with any such episodes in a decisive fashion. If you don’t, I will.”

“You have my word. And may I point out that young ladies are not encouraged to go around jabbing men in the cravat. They might take it amiss.”

“No doubt. You poor dears spend so much time on the blasted things, you’d probably burst into tears if I disturbed the folds.” She gave him a look of mock concern. “I do hope you’re not going to go into hysterics now.”

“My dear Miss Dryden, may I just say that you are an exceedingly annoying young lady?”

She laughed, her good humor restored. “So I understand. But here’s Mamma now. Perhaps we can finish this conversation another time.”

“We can agree that this particular conversation is closed.”

He ignored her muttered comment about having the last word as he turned to greet her mother.

“Gillian,” the contessa said, “do you not find Green Park simply delightful? It’s quite changed from my youth, when men often met here to fight duels. And you could never be sure a cutpurse wouldn’t leap out from behind a tree and rob you.”

“Goodness,” Gillian said, slipping a hand through her mother’s arm, “that does sound rather exciting.”

“Only to you, my love,” her mother said with rueful affection. “Shall we stroll back to the carriage? I think I’ve had enough fresh air for one day. Now don’t leave your muff dangling on the fence, Gillian. You don’t want to lose another one.”

With a sheepish smile, Gillian fetched her muff. She took her mother’s arm, fussing over her as they slowly made their way back to Piccadilly. Though the contessa gently protested that she was fine, it was obvious she was happy with her daughter’s attentions. Gillian’s devotion was commendable and touching, but Charles couldn’t help noting the imbalance in the relationship. Did anyone fuss over Gillian? Did anyone let her be what she should be—a pretty girl whose only care was which book to read next or what gown to wear at a ball?

Charles bent to retrieve the handkerchief the contessa had accidently dropped, when a voice he hadn’t heard in months came from behind him. It jerked him upright, as if someone had prodded him in the backside with a sharp stick.

“Well, look who it is,” the woman said with an amused lilt that was all too familiar. “Who would think to find His Grace, the Duke of Leverton, in Green Park at this hour? How splendid that you would descend from Mount Olympus to join us mortals in so pedestrian an activity.”

Charles swallowed a curse and adopted a perfectly bland, perfectly polite expression before he turned to confront the woman who’d once ruined his life.


Leverton jerked upright, dismay marking his features. The lapse in his impressive self-discipline surprised Gillian. She’d been needling him all morning, and not once had he lost his temper. He’d clearly gotten her measure, which she found both annoying and deserving of respect.

She was beginning to realize that he was also a very nice man. It was quite a refreshing change, since in her experience a wealthy and handsome man was usually very careless toward the people in his life.

The duke’s expression smoothed out, then he turned to greet the woman who’d accosted them. She was exquisitely garbed, as was the man who escorted her. In fact, they were the most fashionable couple Gillian had ever seen.

The lady was a petite beauty, with hair almost as pale as moonlight. That ethereal appearance, however, was offset by a curvaceous bosom and hips, which were displayed to great advantage by her beautifully tailored walking gown. She looked both dainty and seductive, a tricky combination to pull off. Next to a woman like that, Gillian must seem like a stick, with approximately the same level of sexual allure.

Not that she cared. She never cared what other women looked like.

The lady’s companion, although cast a bit in her shade, was what most women would consider a handsome fellow. He had a pleasing face, artfully arranged brown curls, and a charming smile that could coax the songbirds from the trees. Currently he was leveling that engaging smile at Leverton, who didn’t appear charmed in the least.

In fact, the duke’s expression was a virtual blank. If Gillian hadn’t already heard the woman address him by name, she would have assumed that Leverton considered them strangers.

“Come now, Charles,” the woman said in a light, pretty voice that held a great deal of amusement. “Surely you knew that Gerry and I were back in town. There’s no need to act like you’ve just spotted an apparition.” The woman laid her elegantly gloved hand on his arm. “Have you no words of greeting for your oldest friends?”

Leverton stared down at her for a second, then his lips curved up in a faint smile, one that stopped miles below his eyes. “Forgive me. I was merely surprised, madam. I have just returned to London myself after some weeks away.”

“At Oakdale Hall? Or, perhaps, your estate in Yorkshire?” she said. “You did always prefer the country, which was something I could never understand.”

“No, you never could.” Leverton briskly removed the woman’s hand from his arm and turned to Gillian’s mother with a sincere smile as he handed over her kerchief. “Your handkerchief, madam. I do hope it’s not too dirty.”

Gillian blinked. His snub was so obvious that even she’d been able to catch it. That the lady had caught it too was evidenced by the flash of fire in her azure-blue eyes.

Her escort hastily moved forward and took her arm. “Now, my love, you’re awfully good at teasing, but you mustn’t do it to Charles. We fellows don’t stand a chance once you start in on us.” Though his manner was easy, his tone carried a subtle warning.

The woman affected a pretty pout. “I always used to tease our dear Charles. He never minded it before.”

Leverton’s eyebrows went up in an incredulous lift that made Gillian even more curious. Who were these people, and why did the duke find them so annoying? Vastly more annoying than her, she’d wager, and that was saying something.

In fact, His Grace was now regarding the man with an appraisal so cold that it confirmed her suspicions. The Duke of Leverton was not a man to cross. He might dress almost as exquisitely as the gentleman standing before him, but Gillian had little doubt Leverton could lift him right off his feet and shake him like a terrier shaking a rat.

The other gentleman barely managed to hold on to his smile. “Well, my love, no one likes to be reminded of their youthful follies. Leverton is no different from the rest of us, despite his exalted status,” he finished in a jesting tone.

Leverton had succumbed to youthful follies? Gillian could hardly begin to imagine.

The little joke fell flat, and an uncomfortable silence fell over their small group. The duke was now beginning to look bored by the encounter.

Mamma, who’d stood quietly by with a slight frown, finally cast a worried look in Gillian’s direction and then sighed, as if coming to a decision. “Your Grace, perhaps you could introduce us to your . . . friends,” she prompted.

He was obviously reluctant, but what choice did he have? They couldn’t stand around all day like addlepated dimwits. “Contessa, may I introduce the Honorable Gerald Stratton and his wife, Lady Letitia Stratton. Stratton, Lady Letitia, the Contessa di Paterini and . . .”
He hesitated a moment, his glance flickering to Gillian.

She gave him a tiny shrug. She had to start meeting people outside their small circle sooner or later, whether she was ready for it or not. And whether the rest of her family was ready for it or not, including the duke.

“And her daughter, Miss Gillian Dryden,” he finished.

“Mr. Stratton, Lady Letitia,” Mamma said with an easy nod of acknowledgment. “How nice to meet you.”

The Strattons seemed stunned for a few seconds. Then Lady Letitia’s mouth curled up in a smile that looked rather gleeful. Mr. Stratton, however, regarded Gillian with avid curiosity, which struck her as rather rude. Since Gillian was used to rudeness, she simply stared back at him.

Finally, Stratton made a precise bow in Mamma’s direction. “Contessa, Miss Dryden, it is exceedingly pleasant to make your acquaintance.”

“Oh, yes. This is simply delightful,” Lady Letitia trilled to Mamma in a voice so cloying that Gillian’s teeth began to hurt. That level of false sweetness usually meant that the veiled insults and sly comments would commence sooner rather than later.

“We had heard of your return, madam,” Lady Letitia continued, “and have been eager to meet you. You are quite the talk of the town, as you must know. Everyone has been absolutely dying to welcome you back to your rightful home. And to meet your lovely daughter, of course.”

Gillian was hard-pressed not to roll her eyes. The bloody woman was practically quivering with excitement. She must be thrilled to have run smash into the Duke of Cumberland’s notorious bastard daughter as she strolled in the park with the exceedingly proper Duke of Leverton.

“Gillian, what do you say to Mr. Stratton and Lady Letitia?” her mother gently prompted.

Gillian considered responding by tugging on the brim of her bonnet, like a street urchin, but decided against it. She never liked to waste a good insult, and this lot clearly wasn’t worth the effort. Nor did she wish to distress her mother.

Directing her best smile at Stratton, she dipped into a proper curtsey that was a vast improvement on the one she’d tossed off yesterday at Leverton. “Mr. Stratton, Lady Letitia, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Stratton blinked at her like an owl before smiling back. The slow curve of his mouth made him look like he held a particularly delicious secret. He took her hand, giving her a flourishing bow. “Indeed, the pleasure is all mine. Little did I know when I left the house this morning that I would meet so charming a young lady and her equally charming mother. A fellow doesn’t stumble upon such bounties every day, you know.”

Good God. When Gillian tugged her hand away, Mr. Stratton put on quite a little show of reluctance.

“Gerry, it’s much too early in the day to be making a cake of yourself,” his wife said in that coolly amused tone of hers. “Miss Dryden, please don’t be disconcerted by my husband’s fulsome compliments. He flirts with all the girls, although I’m sure in your case his assessment is entirely well deserved.”

Gillian was sure there was an insult in there somewhere. She supposed she really couldn’t blame the woman. While the men of the ton ladled out sweet nothings to the ladies like they were slopping gravy over a joint of beef, it seemed wrong for Stratton to do it so blatantly in front of his wife. Gillian almost preferred dealing with Sicilian bandits. At least one knew where one stood.

Stratton let out a good-natured laugh. “One could hardly blame me, my dear, given the delightful provocation. I’m sure Charles would agree with me completely.”

Leverton finally pried his lips apart. “I’m afraid I agree with your wife. You’re making a complete cake of yourself, and not for the first time, either.” He punctuated his comment by lifting his lips in a smile that looked remarkably like the snarl Gillian had once seen on a wolf she’d encountered on a Sicilian hillside.

Even Stratton’s good humor couldn’t survive so direct an insult. The man’s eyes flashed with anger, and he took a short step forward. Leverton raised an imperious, challenging eyebrow.

Lady Letitia wrapped a firm hand around her husband’s arm. “Now who’s being a tease,” she said in an arch tone. “I know you men love to engage in that sort of jesting behavior, but it’s vastly boring for the ladies. Don’t you agree, Countess?” She turned a prettily imploring gaze on Gillian’s mother.

Mamma gave her a gentle smile. “Goodness, I’m the worst person to ask. Jests simply go over my head. Gillian, shall we start back?” She directed an apologetic glance at the Strattons. “Do forgive me, but I am not used to the British climate. I find myself growing chill.”

“Forgive me, madam,” Leverton said, looking rueful. “I am a brute to keep you standing around in this damp weather. Let me take you and Miss Dryden back to the carriage.”

“I say, is your carriage up on Piccadilly?” Stratton exclaimed, apparently over his fit of pique. “If so, why don’t we all walk together? Countess, may I lend you my arm?”

“How kind of you,” Mamma said. “But it’s entirely unnecessary.”

“Oh, please do let us walk with you,” Lady Letitia said so sweetly that it made Gillian’s teeth hurt again. Everything about the woman made her teeth hurt, mostly because she seemed so . . . perfect.

And Gillian was getting perfectly sick of perfect.

Lady Letitia slipped her arm through Leverton’s. “I haven’t seen the duke in an age, and I am simply dying to find out how he came to be acquainted with you, my dear countess. And your lovely daughter, of course,” she said graciously.

At least Gillian thought she was being gracious, but it was a little hard to tell. Clearly, her ladyship was a dab hand both at navigating the rocky shoals of polite conversation and at the art of the subtle insult. Sadly, Gillian was adept at neither.

“There’s not much of a story to tell,” Leverton said in a blighting tone.

Though he didn’t seem happy to have Lady Letitia hanging off his arm, there was obviously nothing he could do about it.

When Stratton stepped forward to take Mamma’s arm, she waved him away. “Thank you, but no. You young people always bustle along too fast for me. I’ll walk with my maid, if you don’t mind.” She turned and nodded to Maria, who’d been standing quietly behind her mistress during the entire exchange. Maria’s lack of English meant that most of the conversation had sailed over her head. If she had understood it, she’d probably have boxed Stratton’s ears for being so forward with her beloved lady’s daughter.

“Mr. Stratton, perhaps you could give my daughter your arm,” Mamma said, smiling at Gillian as if she were offering up a splendid treat. “Maria and I will catch up with you at the carriage.”

Stratton clapped a hand to his chest. “Countess, I should be delighted to escort your daughter. In fact, you have just made my day.”

This time Gillian did roll her eyes. “Obviously doesn’t take much,” she muttered.

He peered at her. “I’m sorry. What did you say, Miss Dryden?”

“Nothing of any import,” she replied, taking his arm. She had no desire to stroll with the man, but Mamma obviously thought it would be a good opportunity for Gillian to practice polite conversation.

Leverton glared at Stratton, as if about to object to the arrangement. Lady Letitia, however, dragged him in the direction of the Broad Walk, already chatting away like a magpie. Gillian had to repress the impulse to laugh, if for no other reason than to see the Duke of Leverton so expertly rolled up. She felt a bit sorry for him, but it was good for a man to be managed every now and again. As nice as Leverton was, he could be a tad arrogant. It wouldn’t kill him to be taken down a peg, and Lady Letitia certainly appeared capable of doing it.

That there was some sort of history between the two was obvious. Leverton’s reaction suggested that it hadn’t been all sweetness and fairy tales but Lady Letitia seemed to think otherwise. In fact, she looked almost possessive of him.

And he now looked as if he’d finally climbed off his high horse. Leverton even dipped down a bit to listen to her, their fair heads coming together in a glory of burnished sunlight.

Gillian frowned, startled that the sight bothered her.

“They make a handsome couple, don’t they?” Stratton said as he and Gillian followed. His voice held a tinge of bitterness, as if echoing her thoughts. “Two paragons of perfection.” His pleasant expression seemed at odds with his voice.

“Then it’s lucky for us that we don’t have to walk alongside them, isn’t it?” Gillian said. “I don’t know about you, but I find perfection to be an extremely irritating trait.” When he threw her a startled glance, she smiled. “I expect it’s because I’m anything but perfect myself. Then again, think of how tiring it must be to have to live up to such a standard, day in and day out.”

He laughed. “Quite right, Miss Dryden. Let us indeed count ourselves lucky that we can simply plod along like ordinary people.”

“It must be terribly hard to have one’s nose up in the air all the time. One is likely to get a crick in the neck.”

“Oh, my Letitia is quite down to earth, though one can’t say the same about Leverton. There’s a reason they call him ‘Perfect Penley.’”

Gillian mentally blinked at the venomous undertone in Stratton’s voice. It seemed at odds with his kind manner toward her and Mamma, and she didn’t like it.

They strolled in silence. Gillian kept her gaze fastened on Leverton and Lady Letitia, while Stratton seemed more interested in studying Gillian. Like most of the Londoners she’d met thus far, he seemed to regard her as if she were some exotic species that might, if given the chance, do something alarming.

Or at least entertaining.

Stratton finally spoke up again. “Might I be so impertinent as to enquire how you and your mother happen to know the duke?”

“I don’t think I could stop you from inquiring even if I wanted to, could I?”

He burst into laughter. “Oh, I say, I do like you. So refreshing to have such unvarnished speech from a young lady.”

“I’m rather known for it. And I’m told it’s not always to my advantage.”

He gave her hand a little squeeze. “Then we shall get along famously. I must say I find you to be entirely delightful, Miss Dryden. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs his or her head examined.”

She cast him a doubting glance, but he simply smiled. Most men were put off by her manner, at least the type of men her grandmother deemed proper. Stratton’s manners might be a bit too informal, but she was the last person who could hold that against him.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very kind.”

“And you are kind not to scold me for my forward behavior. Now, since you clearly don’t mind my impertinence, perhaps you’ll tell me how you know Leverton.”

“He’s a near relation of my grandmother, Lady Marbury.”

Stratton flashed her another charming smile. “It’s deuced difficult to keep straight all the connections among the great families, don’t you think?”

“I do indeed,” Gillian said dryly, thinking of her own complicated family history. Everyone knew who her father was, and they held it against her, as if it were her fault. While she loathed how unfair that was, there was nothing she could do but shrug it off. Her parentage, however, didn’t seem to bother Stratton, which was rather decent of him. “If you don’t mind my asking, what is your relationship to the Duke of Leverton? You seem to know each other quite well.”

“You can ask me anything,” Stratton said, settling her hand more snuggly in the crook of his elbow. Gillian had the impulse to put a little more daylight between them, but resisted, not wanting to be rude. Stratton was one of the few people she’d met who seemed to genuinely like her. “I have a feeling we’re going to be great friends,” he added.

At that exact moment, Leverton glanced back at them, and his eyebrows snapped together in a heavy scowl. Gillian wondered what she’d done to annoy him now.

“Charles and I have known each other forever,” Stratton said. “We were the best of friends at Oxford. Thick as thieves, actually.”

That surprised her. “What happened? You’re obviously not friends anymore. At least not best ones.”

“We drifted apart after I married and he became duke.” He let out a little laugh. “The responsibilities of life, I imagine.”

It was hardly an adequate explanation. She let it drop, however, since they were approaching Piccadilly. Leverton was impatiently waiting for them by the carriage, while Lady Letitia appeared to have not a care in the world.

“Miss Dryden, may I be honest with you?” Stratton said in a low voice.

He slowed his pace, forcing her to slow as well. In her experience, that particular question usually preceded a remark that was anything but honest. “I think we’ve already ascertained that you needn’t mince words with me, sir.”

“Splendid. It is simply this. If you ever stand in need of a friend, or someone to confide in, I’m your man.” He pressed a hand to his chest, looking soulful. Gillian couldn’t help noticing that he was careful to avoid squishing his cravat. “Believe me,” he continued, “I know how vicious the ton can be toward anyone who carries even the slightest hint of notoriety. One often needs a friend in those circumstances, and I stand ready to be yours.”

“Thank you,” she said cautiously. “I’ll be sure to remember that.”

“Perhaps you’ll honor me with a walk in the park sometime soon, or even a drive.” He winked at her. “Just the two of us.”

Gillian mentally sighed. Now she understood. “I doubt my grandmother would approve, sir, but thank you for the offer, regardless.”

“Well, you wouldn’t need to tell Lady Marbury, would you?”

“What exactly are you suggesting that Miss Dryden withhold from her grandmother, Stratton?” the duke asked in a loud voice.

Gillian jerked in surprise, since she and her escort were still some distance away from the carriage, and Stratton had been speaking in low tones. Leverton must have the hearing of a bat. She made a mental note to remember that. But for now, she had to deal with Stratton’s impertinent suggestion.

“Nothing of any importance, Your Grace,” she said brightly. “I was simply telling Mr. Stratton how very close I am to my grandmother. She is, indeed, my greatest confidant.” She gave her escort her sweetest smile. “I tell Grandmamma everything. In fact, I can’t wait to tell her all about meeting you today. I’m sure she’ll be vastly pleased to hear I’ve made a new friend.”

He winced, but quickly recovered. “Quite,” he said, joining his wife. “Nothing like making new friends, eh, my love?”

When Lady Letitia took her husband’s arm, Gillian fancied he winced under a grip that looked rather painful. “Indeed.” Lady Letitia directed a sly smile at the duke. “Almost as delightful as reviving cherished relationships with old friends, wouldn’t you say, Charles?”

“I suppose it depends on the circumstances,” Leverton replied. “And the friends.”

“Well, we must be off,” Lady Letitia said, obviously taking the hint. Gillian had to give her ladyship credit—her smile never faltered. “Miss Dryden, please convey my best regards to your mother. I’m sure we’ll be seeing you again very soon.”

“I look forward to it, Miss Dryden,” Stratton said. “And I hope to meet your grandmother soon, as well. She sounds delightful.” Then he winked at her. Clearly, he was not a man to be easily discouraged.

Gillian glanced at Leverton, but he’d half turned away to talk to his coachman. Stratton might be a cad, but he had the brains to conceal his pathetic attempts at flirtation from the duke. He obviously didn’t feel the need to modify his inappropriate behavior in front of his wife, however, which was rather odd.

Then again, nothing about aristocratic bad behavior shocked Gillian anymore.

With a final smile and wave, the Strattons set off along Piccadilly. Leverton returned to scowling at Gillian again. She was beginning to wonder if he deserved his reputation as the politest man in London, but whatever he was going to say was forestalled when Mamma joined them.

“Well, that was a delightful outing, was it not?” Mamma said. “Gillian, did you enjoy your stroll with Mr. Stratton?”

Gillian shrugged. “He was all right. A little too chatty, if you ask me.”

“I certainly hope you didn’t tell him so,” her mother said.

“No, Mamma. I was very polite.”

“Cousin Julia, would you object if your daughter and I walked home?” Leverton said abruptly. “It’s such a fine day, and I’m sure Miss Dryden would enjoy a little more time outdoors.”

Her mother cast a worried glance at the cloud-riven sky. It was anything but a fine day, but Gillian didn’t mind walking a bit more. It was very nice of the duke to make the offer, since she was sure he had better things to do.

Then again, perhaps he intended to deliver another lecture or scold.

“It’s fine, Mamma,” she said. “I’d much rather be out than cooped up indoors.”

“Very well, but don’t linger. It looks like rain.” As if to underline her point, a gust of wind swirled around them, kicking up their skirts.

The duke helped Mamma and Maria into the carriage, then turned to Gillian and took her hand, settling her beside him. She noticed how much taller he was than Stratton, and how muscular his arm was under her fingertips. She supposed she couldn’t blame Lady Letitia for giving the duke sheep’s eyes since Leverton was such a handsome, well-built man.

“Miss Dryden, I have something I must ask you,” he said.

A scold it is. Only a dolt would have missed his disapproving tone.

“Go ahead,” she said, resigned.

“What the devil did Stratton want you to keep secret?”

My Fair Princess

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