Three Weeks With a Princess

Three Weeks With a Princess

The Improper Princesses Book Two
Kensington Books
June 2017

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In Vanessa Kelly’s captivating series, three young women are descended from royalty—in the most improper way. But that doesn’t stop them from pursuing lives rich in adventure…

Lia Kincaid, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of York, comes from a long line of notorious women. Raised by her grandmother, formerly mistress to the late Marquess of Lendale, she has little hope of a respectable marriage. But the new marquess, her childhood friend, Jack Easton, would make a very desirable protector…if he weren’t too honorable to take her to bed.

It’s bad enough being saddled with a title he never desired. Now Jack must resist the beautiful woman he desires far too much. Duty calls, and he is duty-bound to choose a wealthy bride. But then Lia makes another outrageous suggestion: asking Jack to devise some tests to find her the perfect paramour. Tests that involve flirting, kissing, and other pleasurable pursuits. Tests that, in a matter of weeks, could transform friendship into the ton’s greatest scandal, igniting a passion even duty can’t deny…

A Barnes & Noble Bookseller Pick

“From the very start, it’s impossible not to root for Lia Kincaid…an enjoyable, thoughtful romance.” ~Kirkus Reviews

“With a style reminiscent of Heyer, Vanessa Kelly’s THREE WEEKS WITH A PRINCESS breathes fresh air into the Regency genre while hitting all the familiar sweet spots. A tender, sexy, romantic treat.” ~Manda Collins, Bestselling Regency Romance Author 

“Flirtatious encounters gently heat up the narrative until masquerade ball mayhem devolves into fiery passion. When a lord’s death in a brothel puts Lia in peril, Kelly gives her a wonderful character-defining moment that will have readers cheering…the entertaining cast of snooty relatives, thespians, and street thugs delivers adventure aplenty.” ~Publishers Weekly

“Witty and wonderful. A charming tale from start to finish.” ~Valerie Bowman, Bestselling Historical Romance Author

“This is a wonderful addition to the Improper Princesses series! It is well written, flows nicely, has a lot of twists and turns, some laugh out loud moments, some tense moments and some very thought provoking scenes.” ~5 stars, Flippin’ Pages

“Vanessa Kelly writes stories that are a dazzling mix of beauty and magic. With classic tales of bewitching romance, daring rogues, passionate damsels and unstoppable drama, who could ask for anything more?” 5 stars, I love Romance

“This story was charming, and the attraction and friendship between Jack and Lia was wonderful…I definitely recommend this book.” 4.5 stars, Booked All Night

“This Improper Princesses love story is brimming over with Kelly’s signature warmth, wit and sensuality. Readers will adore the smart and sassy repartee, heated situations, engaging characters and especially the friends-to-lovers trope Kelly employs to keep them glued to the pages from beginning to end.” ~4 stars, RT Book Reviews

“What a riveting, fast-paced, entertaining read Ms. Kelly has penned in this story, encompassing the friends to lovers trope, {and} a feisty and brave heroine.” 5 stars, Book Magic

“It had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish and it was topped off with a remarkably sweet HEA. Overall, this book was extremely enjoyable and I highly recommend it!” 5 stars, Sammi’s Bookish Reality

“Highly engaging, as well as wildly outrageous fun. There’s plenty of sizzle, and just the right amount of sweet. This is going on my ever-growing favorites stack!” 5 stars, Night Owl Romance Top Pick

“True to form, Vanessa Kelly’s writing is superb, and the dialogues spectacular.” Fresh Fiction

“There are so many reasons why I love Vanessa’s books. Her writing is intelligent and insightful and witty. Both Lia and Jack are complex, engaging characters that you will love.” ~The Reading Wench

“Between countless amusing situations and mounting sexual tension, I was constantly entertained…Vanessa Kelly has created an enchanting Regency story, and THREE WEEKS WITH A PRINCESS will long be remembered for its originality.”

“Three Weeks With a Princess is an adorable and fun return to Vanessa Kelly’s Improper Princesses…packed with humor and a well-balanced cast of characters, this is a lovely addition to a series that just keeps getting better.” ~Bookpage

“Vanessa Kelly continues to excel at creating realistic characters with palpable chemistry between them. The rapport between Jack and Lia is brilliantly written, the cadence of the speech and wit of the banter is stellar.” ~4.5 stars, Polished Bookworm

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been so engrossed in a Regency romance and so in love with a heroine and hero from the very start. I couldn’t put this book down.” ~4.5 stars, Straight Shootin’ Book Reviews

“A wonderful instalment in the series and has me waiting not so patiently for the next book!” 4 stars, I am, Indeed

“A fast-paced adventure that includes danger, desire, witty banter, exposed family secrets, humor, and heartwarming romance.” ~4.5 stars, The Romance Dish

“This is truly another smashing story for Ms. Kelly. She really hit this one out of the ball park.” ~5 stars, Harlequin Junkie Top Pick

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


Christmas 1809

Lia Kincaid adored Stonefell Hall during the Christmas season, despite the fact that it was the time of year she was most likely to be barred from the place she considered home. As she gazed down at the baronial splendor of the great entrance hall, now festively adorned with swags of evergreens and bay leaves, she couldn’t help glowing with a sense of pride and, yes, ownership.

But Stonefell wasn’t home. Home for her was a short walk down a country lane to Bluebell Cottage. Bluebell was undeniably charming, except when the roof leaked or the chimneys smoked during an east wind. Still, one learned to live with pans strategically scattered around the house to catch drips and windows could be opened if a parlor grew too smoky.

Of course, Lia had no choice but to live with leaks and other little annoyances. Her grandmother would never complain to the cottage’s owner, the Marquess of Lendale, about something as mundane as a leaky roof because his lordship had other things on his mind when calling on Granny. The two of them lived in a romantic bubble when they were together, leaving the boring details to Lia to handle.

And speaking of leaks, her boots were getting as aerated as the cottage roof. Lia wriggled her damp feet to restore some warmth to her toes, but her cramped position behind a wooden screen made it difficult to move. Maintaining her crouch, she inched her way across the long gallery that overlooked the hall. At the opposite end, she was finally able to stand and partly hide herself behind a stone column. It was colder now because she was farther from the roaring blaze of the hall’s stone fireplace, but at least she could hop around and send blood flowing back to her limbs.

Her position offered her an excellent view of Lord John Easton, along with his daughter, Lady Anne, and his wife, Lady John Easton—Elizabeth to her family and close friends.

Neither Lia nor Granny could count Lady John as either family or friend.

The Eastons, who were spending the holiday with the Marquess of Lendale, Lord John’s older brother, were the reason for Lia’s temporary banishment from Stonefell Hall, when she normally had the run of the place. If Lady John caught sight of either Lia or her grandmother, fire and brimstone would rain down from the skies.

Lady John blamed Lia’s grandmother for bringing disgrace to the Lendale good name, and her hatred for the notorious Rebecca Kincaid ran deep. It didn’t matter that the marquess had installed Granny on the estate over ten years ago, or that he continued to openly support both her and Lia with the clear intention of doing so for the rest of his life. In Lady John’s eyes, Granny was the harlot and enchantress who’d caused Lendale to lose both his wits and his sterling reputation.

But it was mostly because of Anne that Lia was ordered to remain hidden. Lady John was adamant that her daughter not be exposed to the moral pollution of any one of the Kincaids.

Lia propped her shoulder against the column and studied the elegant, beautiful girl. Anne was dressed in a white velvet gown trimmed with spangles that made her shimmer like a Christmas bauble under the flickering lights of the massive chandelier hanging over the hall. She was destined for great things on the marriage mart according to the gossip in the kitchens. And she was certainly popular tonight, with a bevy of callow bachelors trailing along in her wake.

Despite her proud demeanor, Anne had a charming smile and a cheerful laugh that made Lia think they could be chums if given half a chance.
But, of course, they never would be. It would be wildly inappropriate for such a fine young lady to suffer the insult of Lia’s presence. After all, not only was she the granddaughter of Lendale’s mistress, she was the daughter of a famous actress and illegitimate to boot. Lia had often wondered what would happen if Lady John discovered she and Anne had accidentally run into each other a few times. Total mayhem would most likely ensue, or at least a great deal of screeching and possibly even a decorous faint.

Nothing good came from the visits of Lord John and his family. Nothing good at all.

With one gloriously earth-shattering exception. Jack Easton, eldest child and only son of Lord John and Lady John, would be visiting, too. That fact made up for all the inconveniences and slights a thousand times over.

Unfortunately, Lia’s chances of spending any significant amount of time with Jack seemed remote; he was staying in Yorkshire for less than a week and his blasted family was doing their best to monopolize his attention. Not that she could blame them; monopolizing his time was precisely what she had been longing for since he’d arrived.

She’d lost sight of Jack about ten minutes earlier because the hall was filled to bursting with the local gentry, all come to partake of the festive hospitality of the Marquess of Lendale. Jack had looked ridiculously handsome and dashing in his new regimentals and, not surprisingly, a horde of county girls had trailed behind him like a gigantic, multihued scarf of fluttering, flirtatious butterflies.

Lia only saw Jack three times a year—at Christmas and two other school holidays, when he came by himself to visit. Because of that, she couldn’t help resenting the fashionable, well-bred girls who could speak to him, flirt with him, and dance with him whenever they pleased. It was a luxury she longed for with all her heart.

You nitwit. As if Jack Easton could ever—would ever—fall in love with you.

How could he? Lia was one of the Notorious Kincaids, though the description was ridiculous when applied to her. Skinny, with freckles, and as flat as a board, she could no more follow in the famous footsteps of her mother and grandmother than conjure a mug of wassail from thin air. Despite her scandalous parentage, Lia was as ordinary a country girl as one could imagine.

Still, being ordinary didn’t make her acceptable, as least not for the likes of Jack Easton, who was destined to be the Marquess of Lendale one day.
“Lurking in the shadows again, are we? I swear you’d make a splendid spy in Wellington’s army.”

As Lia jerked around, her foot caught on the sodden hem of her gown. She squeaked as she fell back against the banister rail, frantically pinwheeling her arms to regain her balance. Jack shot out a hand and snatched her from danger.

“Confound it, Lia,” he gasped. “Be careful.”

After casting a glance into the hall, Jack drew her into the shadows at the back of the gallery.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was very silly of me.” Compared to the elegant young ladies he’d been dancing with earlier, she must seem like a foolish bumpkin.

Jack gave her a brief, fierce hug before holding her at arm’s length to inspect her. “Pet, don’t apologize. I’m the one who snuck up and startled you. I’m just thankful I caught you before you toppled over the side.”

“Jack, I’m not that clumsy.”

Laughter crept into his dark gaze. “Of course you aren’t. I don’t know how I could remotely suggest such a thing.”

She sighed. “I suppose because you’ve saved my life any number of times over the years?”

“Well, I have pulled you out of the pond at least twice. And then there was that time you knocked down the wasp’s nest, and the time you almost fell out of the tree, and the time you knocked over that heavy bookshelf in the library—”

“At least two of those incidents were your fault in the first place. But I will concede that you’ve rescued me more than a few times. And you’re an absolute beast to point that out, by the way.”

“I am, aren’t I? But whatever would you do without me around?”

He was joking, of course, but it still made her chest go tight with sorrow. Soon she would have to do without him. Jack was a man now, and a soldier. In just a matter of weeks, he would be embarking on a life of adventure. God only knew when she would see him again.

“I expect I’ll rub along just fine without you,” she said, forcing a light tone. She refused to ruin the few moments they had together with high-flown dramatics. He had to put up with enough of that from his mother.

“It was very nice of you to come up here to see me,” she added.

“I spotted you crouching behind the screen. That red pelisse of yours was a dead giveaway. Not that I hadn’t already guessed you’d be up here.”
Lia’s heart thundered into a gallop. “No one else saw me, did they?”

Lord Lendale would be angry if he knew she was spying on his guests. She wasn’t even supposed to be in the house, much less lurking about the gallery, where she risked discovery.

“No one else saw you,” he said. “Except for Richard. He sees everything.”

She heaved a relieved sigh. “That’s all right, then. He’ll scold me, but he won’t rat on me to his lordship.” Richard was the head footman and one of Lia’s biggest supporters at Stonefell Hall. He’d been only a kitchen boy when she’d arrived all those years ago. They’d all but grown up together.
“Fortunately, I managed to distract Debbins before he got a glimpse of you,” he said.

Unlike most of the servants, who treated her with indulgence, the butler was offended by her very presence. “Thank you for saving me,” she said wryly. “Again.”

Jack frowned. “Debbins doesn’t mistreat you, does he?”

“Of course not. Lord Lendale would never allow that.”

“But he’s not very nice to you, is he?”

She shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me very much.”

His frown deepened to a scowl. “I’ll have a word—”

“No. That won’t help at all.”


“Why are we talking about that old rusty guts anyway? We’ve not had a moment to chat and I expect you have to go back down soon before you’re missed.” She smiled up into his dear, handsome face. “How are you? Are you enjoying your duties in the Horse Guards? I must say you look simply wonderful in your uniform.”

He grinned, his evident pride making him seem boyish again. “It’s even better than I expected. I’ve been assigned to Northumberland’s staff, so I’ll be heading out for the Peninsula within the next few months, I expect.”

The very idea of him anywhere near the war terrified her, but she refused to let him see it. Jack had always longed for a military career, and thanks to his uncle’s willingness to buy him a commission, he’d finally gotten his greatest wish. As a true friend, she must be happy for him.

“That’s splendid,” she said. “I hope you’ll find the chance now and again to write to us here in boring old Yorkshire. It’s beastly quiet, you know. Your letters are always a welcome distraction for me and Granny.”

“I will, whenever I get the chance.”

“You promise you won’t forget?” she asked, unable to help herself.

His dark eyes went soft and warm. “I could never forget you, Lia. You know that.”

She tried to smile. Of course he would forget her. After all, she was simply a girl, not yet even sixteen. There would be no reason for him to retain more than the occasional vaguely affectionate memory of her.

But to Lia, Jack was the entire world.

When the small orchestra launched into a new set of dances, they both glanced toward the party below.

“You’d best go down before you’re missed,” she said softly.

“I’ve a few more minutes and you’ve not yet told me how you are.” His gaze traveled over her form. “The hem of your pelisse is soaked.” He reached out and took her hand. “And your fingers are freezing.”

Though she was indeed freezing, she didn’t care. Not when she could spend time with Jack. “I’m fine.”

“Did you cut through the back garden?”

“It’s the best way to get here without being seen.” It meant she’d had to tramp through a foot of snow before she could sneak into the house through his lordship’s library.

He gave a disapproving shake of his head. “We’ve got to get you warm before you go back or you’ll catch a chill.”

“Really, Jack, it’s—”

He forestalled her objection by practically dragging her over to the staircase at the other end of the gallery.

“What are you doing? Someone will see us,” she hissed.

“Only if you keep making so much noise, you goose.”

Lia huffed a bit, pretending to be offended by his high-handed manner. But, actually, she loved it. She’d follow Jack Easton across the River Styx if he asked her.

They crept down the narrow, winding staircase to the corridor below. It ran from the great hall to the east wing, where the library, the breakfast room, and one of the smaller drawing rooms were located. Because no one would be in those rooms at this time of night, the corridor was deserted. But Richard popped up before them, making Lia gasp.

“Oh, there you are,” Jack said in an easy tone. “Miss Lia rather soaked her pelisse on the way to the house, so I’m taking her to the library to warm up before she returns to the cottage.”

“Very good, sir. I took the liberty of lighting a fire a few minutes ago, so the room should be nice and warm by now.”

Lia wrinkled her nose at the young footman, who carried himself with a dignity beyond his years. “How did you know?”

“Did we not previously agree that Richard always knows?” Jack said. “Now, come along before you catch your death of cold.”

As he hauled her along the corridor, Lia cast a thank-you smile over her shoulder. The footman shook his head with disapproval. Richard was another one who worried about her getting into trouble, although she couldn’t imagine what sort of trouble she was supposed to get into with Jack. In his company, she was always safe.

They slipped into the library, their footfalls muffled by the thick Axminster carpet that insulated them from the chill of the old stone floors. Jack led her to the fireplace and pushed her down onto the thickly padded seat of a club chair. With a sigh of pleasure, she stretched her feet toward the merrily leaping flames, luxuriating in the heat that washed over her.

“Good Lord,” he said, crouching down before her.

“What is it?”

He felt her foot. “Your boots are soaked through.” His hand moved up to her ankle. “And so are your stockings.”

His warm fingers marked her like a brand, even through her thick woolen stockings. Cheeks flaming, Lia jerked away and tucked her feet under herself on the chair. Jack muttered an oath and tugged them back out, propping them against the firedogs.

He inspected her boots with disfavor. “When was the last time you had a new pair?”

Now even more embarrassed, Lia simply shrugged. The boots, hand-me-downs from her grandmother, were perfectly fine for puttering around in dry lanes in mild weather, but the soles had lately sprung a leak. Even lining them with scraps of wool and linen had failed to keep the moisture out.

Jack let out a sigh as he came to his feet, his broad shoulders and long, muscular legs backlit by the fire. She swore he’d grown two inches since she’d last seen him and had certainly filled out very nicely.

“When was the last time you had a new pair of boots?” he insistently repeated.

She waved a vague hand. “Oh, these are just one of my older pairs. I didn’t want to ruin the good ones in the snow.”

His snort indicated how little he believed that Banbury tale, but Lia chose not to argue. Money had been a bit scarcer of late, although she wasn’t sure why. Lord Lendale provided Granny and her with whatever they needed. But he’d recently been forgetful, neglecting details like new boots for her or Granny’s favorite Gunpowder tea, sent special from London.

Far worse, he’d neglected repairs to their increasingly leaky roof, which was certainly not a luxury.

“I’ll speak to my uncle,” Jack said. “He’ll see to it that you get a new pair.”

She shot upright in her seat. “No, please don’t.”

“Don’t be silly, Lia.”

“Jack, I’m serious. Don’t make a fuss.”

“Why ever not? Uncle Arthur would be very unhappy to know you’re going about with wet feet.”

“Because Granny hates fussing at Lord Lendale, that’s why. Or make him feel guilty, which is even worse. He’s been so good to us, and we have absolutely no right to complain.”

Because his back was to the fire, Jack’s face was mostly in shadow. But Lia could see the annoyed set to his shoulders. “Jack, please let it go, for my sake.”

“He should take better care of you,” he replied in a hard voice.

“Lord Lendale takes excellent care of us, I assure you.” She patted the arm of the chair next to her. “Please sit down, at least for a minute. You’re like some giant looming over me. I feel quite intimidated.”

“That’s a laugh,” he said, sitting down. “Listen to me, Lia. I’m taking you into the village before I leave and buying you a new pair of boots.” He cut off her objections with an imperious hand. “Think of it as my Christmas present to you.”

Jack was loyal to a fault, and she knew he worried about her and her grandmother. More than anyone, he understood their precarious position as dependents on Lord Lendale’s support. Lia had formed the impression over the years that Jack didn’t think his uncle had treated Rebecca Kincaid as well as he should. She half-agreed with that opinion, although it seemed utterly disloyal to the man who’d, in many ways, stood in as a father to her.
“Thank you,” she said, giving him a warm smile. “But that would be much too generous.”

“I can’t go waltzing off to the Peninsula knowing you’re freezing your feet off up here in Yorkshire. I’d worry so much about you that I’d likely fall into a horrible decline.”

She laughed. “Now you’re just being silly.”

He turned his head to smile at her. “I am, but you should know that I’d already planned to take you shopping for a present before I left for London.”

She ignored the stab of pain that pierced her whenever she thought of him going so far away. “I’ve got a Christmas present for you, too.”

“Pet, that was sweet of you, but I don’t want you spending money on me.” His deep voice curled around her, bringing warmth and peace.

“Then you’ll be happy to know I didn’t spend a farthing,” she replied with a cheeky grin.

He snorted. “Brat. What did you get me?”

She fished under her pelisse and extracted a square of fabric from the inside pocket of her gown. Carefully, she unfolded it to show him the small object contained within.

“Good Lord,” he breathed as he took it from her. “Where did you find it?”

“At the ruins of the abbey outside Ripon. Your uncle took Granny and me there last August.”

While her grandmother and his lordship had sat on a blanket, talking softly and making sheep’s eyes at each other, Lia had gone off exploring the ruins. It had been the luckiest chance when, climbing over a tumbledown wall, her foot had slipped, sending her down on her bottom into the grass. She hadn’t hurt herself, but she had dislodged some of the crumbling stone. Lying in the dirt beside her had been an old Roman coin.

Lia had known instantly what she would do with her find. Jack had a passion for history and had spent many a holiday rummaging around various ruins. Roman, Saxon, Norman: he loved them all. Granny had even allowed Lia to go with him a few times, once to the very ruins where she’d found the coin.

“That’s where I took you when you were just a little girl,” he said as he held the coin up to the light.

“Not so little,” she protested.

“You were only nine,” he said with a wry smile.

“I suppose you’re right,” she grumbled. He probably still thought of her as a little girl.

“And a rather grubby one, as I recall,” he joked.

“Now you sound like Granny,” she said.

He reached over and tugged one of the curls that hung limply by her cheek. “I’m just teasing. Seriously, Lia, this coin is in excellent condition. Are you sure you want to give it to me?”

“Of course,” she said, stung that he would even consider refusing it. “I told you, it’s your Christmas present.”

As he studied her, she felt strangely awkward, as if he saw something new in her.

“Thank you, sweet girl.” He tucked the coin inside his coat pocket. “I’ll keep it with me always as a good-luck charm.”

“And it will help you to remember me when you’re far away.”

“Goose. As if I could ever forget you.”

If only she could believe he would not. ‘Truly?”

“Of course. You are my dear little friend.”

She swallowed a sigh.

When the mantel clock quietly bonged out the quarter hour, Jack grimaced.

“You have to go,” she said.

“Yes. I’m sorry. Forgive me.”

Lia stood. “Don’t be silly. You’ll get in trouble if you stay away any longer.”

He took her hand and led her to the French doors that opened to the terrace and back garden. From there, she could cut through to the path that led to Bluebell Cottage.

“Go straight home,” he said as he opened the doors. “No hanging about and trying to catch a glimpse of the festivities, understand? You’ll get too cold again.”

“Yes, Jack,” she said dutifully. “You don’t have to worry about me.” She could take care of herself, but his concern warmed her more than any fire could.

“I promise I’ll come down in a day or so to visit you and your grandmother,” he said.

She smiled up at him before slipping through the door. Then she paused for a moment. “They’re singing carols,” she said quietly.

He stepped outside and stood with her on the wide terrace, where the stones had been swept clean of snow. When he put a casual arm around her shoulders and tucked her against his side, Lia’s throat went tight with emotion.

An enthusiastic if slightly off-key rendition of “Joy to the World” drifted out from the great hall. Lia glanced up at the sky, an inky vault with a bright spangle of stars flung across the void. When she gasped, Jack followed her gaze skyward.

He laughed. “Well, look at that.”

It was a shooting star. No, not one, but another and then another, as if fired from the barrel of an enormous gun.

“Quick, Lia. Make a wish,” Jack said.

Two wishes came to her instantly. The first was that whatever travels or dangers he faced, Jack would always come safely home. The second was that someday she would stand again on this terrace with him, but as a grown woman. Then she would finally tell him that she loved him with all her heart.
“Did you make a wish, too?” she whispered.

“I did.”

“Are you going to tell me what it was?”

He pressed a brief kiss to the top of her head before letting go. “No, because if I told you, it wouldn’t come true. Besides, it might annoy you,” he added in a teasing tone.

She poked him in the side. “You are so irritating, Jack Easton.”

He smiled at her, looking impossibly handsome. “I know, but I’ll make it up to you when I next visit.”


“I promise.”

“I’ll see you later, then,” she said, starting for the terrace steps.


She looked over her shoulder. “Yes?”

“Merry Christmas, my dearest girl,” he called softly.

Again her throat went so tight she couldn’t force out a single word. So she simply raised a hand before slipping off into the dark winter night.


July 1816

“How the hell did he let it become such a disaster?” Jack said, pushing aside the ledger. Every time he’d looked at the bloody thing he’d held out a faint hope that circumstances weren’t as bad as they appeared. And every time he was wrong.

The large, leather-clad account book was one of several piled haphazardly before him on the library desk. On the other side of that pile sat Atticus Lindsey, the longtime estate manager at Stonefell and a truly estimable man. He had to be, because he’d put up with years of financial messes and managed to ameliorate some of the worst effects. But even Lindsey’s business acumen and dedication to the family could no longer stave off the inevitable.

Thanks to Jack’s uncle, the previous marquess, Stonefell Hall stood on the brink of ruin, and the Easton family fortunes weren’t far behind.

His estate manager struggled to articulate some positive news—and failed.

“It’s all right, Lindsey,” Jack finally said. “I know we’re teetering on the edge of the abyss. The only question now is how to walk ourselves back from it.”

The middle-aged widower, whose kind face and gentle manner were combined with a whip-smart mind, pulled a grimace. “There are a few things we can try, my lord. We can take down the remaining viable timber in the home wood, for one. The income from that would stave off the creditors till the next quarter.”

Jack hated that idea. So many noble trees had already been lost. Stonefell’s woods had once been the finest in this part of Yorkshire, but they were now a pale imitation of their former glory.

“We’ll do that only as a last resort,” he said. “I’m hoping the harvest will be better this year. The revenues from that should take us well into next year.”

Lindsey eyed him. “Of course, sir.”

In other words, good luck with that, you bloody fool.

He certainly wouldn’t have blamed Lindsey if he’d said those words out loud. Jack had rarely involved himself in estate business, even though he’d known for two years that the Lendale title would fall directly to him. That was when Jack’s father, heir to his older brother, had died of apoplexy, brought on by a life of drinking and excess. His father had evaded responsibility whenever possible. Even in death he’d run true to form and had left Jack to pick up the pieces of a family all but in ruins.

As for the recently deceased marquess…well, Uncle Arthur had been a kind man, loyal to family and friend alike. And he’d been more than generous to Jack, always providing him with a safe haven from his warring parents and helping him achieve a military career by purchasing his commission.

But as a man of business and a caretaker of the family fortune and legacy, the third Marquess of Lendale had been an absolute disaster.

“I’m sorry, my lord,” Lindsey said in a tone warm with sympathy. “I wish I had better news to impart, but the tenant farmers are barely holding on as it is. We’ll need years of good harvests to make up for the ground we’ve lost.”

Jack repressed the impulse to bang his head on the pile of ledgers. Maybe if he did that long enough the figures would somehow untangle themselves. He’d spent so many late nights pouring over the damn numbers, searching for even a thread of good news, he could barely see straight.

For years he’d tried to escape all the family drama by focusing his energies on his military career. He’d worked his arse off, climbing up the chain of command until serving directly under Wellington himself. And even though the fortunes of war were often bleak, he’d loved his work. If fate had decreed otherwise, he’d still be in the army.

But fate had decreed otherwise, and now he was someone he’d never wanted to be—the Marquess of Lendale. The title had been shared by a disreputable group of aristocrats more known for their spendthrift, rakish lifestyles than for nurturing the blessings graced by God and king.

Well, he’d be damned if he was the one to bring the estate crashing down around his mother and sister. They deserved more than that, as did the tenants and staff who worked at Stonefell and in the mansion in London.

And he could never forget Lia and Rebecca, who were as much his responsibility as anyone else under his care.

“What about that idea you floated in your letter to me a few weeks back, when I was in Lincolnshire?” he asked Lindsey.

He’d been there for the wedding of his closest friend, the Duke of Leverton, to the unconventional Miss Gillian Dryden. It had been a welcome respite from his problems, although their marriage had raised a tricky issue he had yet to work out.

Lindsey brightened. “You mean Stonefell’s potential for ore and coal mining? The surveys have yielded some very positive results, but in order to proceed, we need…”

“Additional investments,” Jack said grimly.

“Yes, sir, for more surveys and preliminary explorations. And to go ahead with any sort of comprehensive venture at this point, we would need a substantial investment.”

“Would selling the rest of the timber in the home wood be enough to get us started?” Jack loathed the very notion, but he’d be willing to make the sacrifice. A productive mining operation would not only provide jobs for his struggling tenants and villagers, it could alleviate the debts encumbering the estate.

“I’m afraid not,” Lindsey said with a regretful shake of the head. “There’s no doubt we need outside backers to establish a viable operation.”

But any investor worth his salt would want to see profits as soon as possible. No one would be inclined to invest if they had to wait several years until Jack restored the estate to health. There was another alternative, of course, but he wasn’t particularly thrilled about that one either.

He closed the ledger in front of him with a thud. “I think we’ve both depressed ourselves enough for one day, Lindsey. I’ll be traveling to London in a few weeks. I will speak to my bankers about finding potential—and patient—investors while I’m there.”

Lindsey stood up. “Very good, my lord. I can put out feelers to a few private investors when I’m next in Ripon, if you like.”

“Do that but quietly. We don’t need word getting around that things are as bad as they are.”

“As you wish.”

After Lindsey collected the ledgers and soft-footed his way out, Jack eyed the remaining work on his desk. It felt as if he’d been confined to the stuffy old room forever. Normally, his uncle’s library—his library now—was a favorite place to while away the time. It had always been a welcoming retreat, with its elegant Queen Anne furniture richly mellowed by age, a collection of books lovingly built up over the generations, and several truly impressive globes his uncle had acquired over the years. The handsome room spoke of the taste, wealth, and power of the Lendale line.

Today it felt more like a prison.

He stood and headed for the French doors, his hand automatically reaching out to spin the largest and oldest of the globes as he passed.

You really ought to sell that, old boy, along with the rest of them.

It just might come to that. Along with the antique volumes on the shelves, the globes would attract a pretty sum from a collector.

Shoving aside that unpleasant thought, he stepped onto the terrace, lifting his face to the late afternoon sun. It had been a cool, rainy summer, so even a hint of sunshine was welcome.

He gazed out over this little piece of his domain. The flower gardens behind the house had always been a pleasing mix of roses, flowering shrubs, and hedges. And although the roses still bloomed thick and full, and the ivy and honeysuckle twined lushly along the stone balustrades of the terrace, the garden was no longer up to its previous immaculate standards. The hedges looked a bit ragged, the roses verged on running wild, and the lawn was just a little too long. Old Merton, the head gardener, was doing his best, but Lindsey had been forced to let some outside staff go last year. Only the kitchen gardens were still in top shape, and that was thanks to Lia. According to the housekeeper, she diligently helped Merton tend the extensive herb and vegetable gardens that kept the house abundantly supplied.

Lia, what am I going to do with you?

Though he’d only returned to Stonefell two days before, he’d been avoiding her, which was a new and unwelcome development. Jack had loved the girl almost from the moment he’d met her, back when she’d been an engaging, mischief-prone toddler. Lia was family as far as he was concerned.

But she was also his friend, and a very good one. Although she was five years younger, Jack had long trusted her judgment. Lia was both funny and kind, but she also had an enormously practical head on her slim shoulders. After Lindsey, she knew more about the running of the estate than anyone. She’d grown up here, loving it with a fierce devotion that surpassed that of any member of the Easton family.

Unfortunately, that devotion to Stonefell was about to be poorly repaid. Of all the people on the estate, Lia and Rebecca Kincaid were the most vulnerable.

He couldn’t put off imparting the grim news any longer. He counted it as ironic that when he could finally see his dear friend as often as he wanted, he was doing everything he could to avoid her.

Using the gate at the bottom of the garden, he strode along the pretty, tree-lined lane that led to Bluebell Cottage. Once a small dower house, Uncle Arthur had converted it into a private abode for his mistress. It was far enough from the main house to be out of sight and out of mind, when necessary, but still close enough for the previous marquess to easily visit the once-notorious Rebecca Kincaid whenever he wished. It had always struck Jack as a medieval arrangement that was manifestly unfair to both Rebecca and her granddaughter. Of course, he’d grown used to the odd situation over the years, as had most in the neighborhood, especially those who depended on the estate for their livelihood. That the marquess had loved his mistress with an abiding passion had never been in doubt, and he’d expected everyone in his circle to accept her presence as an immutable fact of life.

Jack’s mother, naturally, had never accepted it. And now that he was the Marquess of Lendale, she expected him to do what she called the moral thing.

As he rounded a curve in the lane, the red slate roof of the cottage came into view, its old chimneys poking above the trees. More a small villa than a rustic abode, Bluebell Cottage was built with the sharp angles and pitched roof of the Jacobean era. Set well back from the lane and shaded by ash and sycamore trees, it was surrounded by an old-fashioned flower garden with a spectacular display of rosebushes. But unlike the larger garden at the main house, Bluebell’s flowerbeds were pristinely maintained, flourishing under an expert hand.

Lia’s hand. She’d always loved to garden and had never minded getting dirty and wet. As a little girl, she’d been Merton’s shadow, imitating his every move. Her enthusiasm and cheery ways had charmed the crusty old gardener, and almost everyone else at Stonefell Hall.

Jack had always believed Lia was the true reason Rebecca had finally been accepted by the estate staff and the locals. Setting up one’s mistress in the backyard wasn’t generally the done thing, but with Lia’s unwitting help, his uncle had pulled it off.

He rapped on the front door. After waiting a few minutes, he hammered again. One of the mullioned windows of the drawing room, to the right of the door, pushed open. Rebecca, her beautifully coiffed, salt-and-pepper hair, topped by a snowy white cap, leaned out.

“Ah, my dear Lord Lendale,” she said in an affectionate voice. “I haven’t a clue where Sarah is, or Lia, for that matter, and the maid has run down to the village to fetch some headache powders. But the door is open, so do let yourself in.”

She retreated with consummate dignity, shutting the window.

Jack couldn’t hold back a grin. Leave it to Rebecca to tell the new marquess to walk right in rather than condescend to answer the door herself. Her present position might be precarious but she had been the longtime lover of the Marquess of Lendale and once had been the most sought-after courtesan in London. Although a truly kind and charming woman, she never let the world forget who she was, nor who she once had been.

Not that he blamed her. She didn’t have anything else to hang on to now that the man she’d loved for so many years—the man for whom she’d given up so much—was dead.

Jack let himself into the low-ceilinged corridor that ran from the front of the house to the back. A narrow staircase halfway down the hall climbed up to the first floor, with its bedrooms and a private sitting room. It was a lovely old house, with intricate woodwork and paneling, as well as some truly fine plasterwork.

But it was in dire need of repair, especially the roof and chimneys.

He knocked briefly on the drawing room door, which was rather silly because Rebecca was expecting him. But she drew comfort from the formalities, and Jack wished her to know that she still had his respect and friendship, even if she had lost all else.

She moved to greet him. Now in her early sixties, she remained an extremely handsome woman, with a plump, comfortable figure and a welcoming manner. But despite her genuinely pleased smile, he saw sadness in her gaze and weariness in the faint web of wrinkles fanning out from her blue eyes. It had been over three months since his uncle’s passing, but Rebecca clearly still grieved. The poor woman had been, for all intents and purposes, the man’s wife. And yet she’d been denied even the solace of attending the church services or receiving the sympathy of family and friends.

“Aunt Rebecca, it’s good to see you,” Jack said, bending to brush a kiss against her cheek. He’d referred to her that way in private for years, which had always pleased his uncle.

“Dear boy, it is so good of you to call,” she said, waving him to the settee across from her high-backed chair. “Lia and I were beginning to quite despair of seeing you.”

“I apologize for not coming down yesterday. I find myself swamped in paperwork and an endless stream of… business.” He’d been about to say disasters.

“I’m sure you have a great deal of work to attend to, settling the estate and becoming familiar with your new responsibilities. If you need help, you must be sure to ask Lia. Sometimes I think she knows Stonefell as well as Mr. Lindsey.”

“She does,” he said with a smile. “By the by, where is she?”

Rebecca glanced at the watch pinned to her waist. “I’m surprised you didn’t run into her in the lane; she said she’d be home by now. She ran up to the stables to speak to the stableman about her mare. I think Dorcas may be in need of new shoes.” She hesitated. “If it’s not too much of a bother, that is.”

Jack’s uncle had always let Lia ride any horse she chose, even picking one out for her special use.

“You needn’t even ask.”

“Thank you,” she said, sounding relieved. “We hate to impose, but you know Lia wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t necessary.”

“Please don’t worry, Aunt Rebecca. Now, tell me how you’ve been. I hope you’re well.”

As they chatted for a few minutes about the usual mundane things like the weather, Rebecca was clearly making an effort to be cheerful. But Jack could tell it was a strain. His uncle had been the touchstone of her increasingly narrow and circumscribed life. Without him, she must feel her future uncertain.

“And how was your trip to Lincolnshire?” she asked. “I presume the Duke of Leverton’s wedding went off without a hitch.” Her carefully neutral tone didn’t fool Jack in the slightest.

“It was a small, private affair but very happy nonetheless. And I’m glad Lia’s not back yet because I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“Yes, I expect you do,” she said with a rueful smile. “You want to know whether you should tell Lia that Gillian Dryden—the new Duchess of Leverton—is her cousin.”

He’d been struggling with that question for some weeks. Leverton was his closest friend, which meant Gillian would now be part of Jack’s life. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the fifth son of King George and brother to the Prince Regent. Because Lia was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of York, the second son of the king, she and Gillian were cousins.

“Yes,” he said. “Naturally I knew I had to discuss the situation with you first. But you must understand there may come a point when Leverton and his duchess will visit Stonefell.”

Though dismay flashed across Rebecca’s features, her impressive discipline soon reasserted itself. “That’s to be expected, naturally. As you know, your uncle rarely entertained due to his health.” She forced a smile. “But such will not be the case with you, I’m sure. You will wish to entertain friends, as well as your mother and sister.”

Best to leave aside the issue of his family for the moment. “I’m not planning on rounds of large house parties.” Especially given how bloody expensive they were. “But we must at least anticipate the possibility.”

“I understand. And to set your mind at ease, Lia is aware that the royal dukes dispensed their favors rather widely.”

Jack almost laughed at the vagueness of her metaphor. Despite being a noted courtesan, Rebecca had always displayed a delicate attitude when it came to discussing scandalous behavior. In fact, she and his uncle had always reminded him of a rather fussy couple who’d been married forever. Emotionally, they certainly had been. Unfortunately, their steadfast devotion had counted for little in the eyes of the world and nothing in the eyes of the law.

For all his kindness, Uncle Arthur had done Rebecca a great disservice. He either should have married her long ago or said farewell, so she could have pursued wealthier patrons. Rebecca could have become a wealthy woman if she’d remained in London, selecting lovers who would have rewarded her with small fortunes. But his uncle had been too selfish to let her go and too weak to fight against his family’s opposition to their marriage.

“So Lia is aware that her situation is not unique?” he asked.

“Of course. It would be impossible not to be aware of the Duke of Clarence’s children, for instance, particularly because Mrs. Jordon once traveled in the same theatrical circles as my daughter.”

Rebecca’s mouth had pulled down in a distasteful little grimace, which clearly indicated her opinion of Clarence’s long-standing mistress and the mother of his numerous children. But that might also be resentment on her part; Clarence had acknowledged his by-blows and made some attempt to provide for them. Such had not been the case for Lia and her mother.

“But as a rule we do not discuss such matters,” she added. “The Duke of York has never even acknowledged Lia. And my daughter has always been loath to expose Lia to the sort of gossip that comes from contact with the royal dukes, preferring her to lead a more sheltered life in the country with me.”

For the last ten years, Lia’s mother, Marianne Lester, had been married to the manager of a popular acting troupe. They generally performed in the provinces, but Stephen Lester’s troupe had recently taken up a contract in London. Lia would love nothing more than to spend time with her mother, but Jack couldn’t help but feel relief that she’d remained safely at Stonefell. The theatrical environment was a hive of salacious scandal and gossip, not for an innocent girl like her.

“We’re agreed on that,” he said. “But it still leaves us with the issue of the Duchess of Leverton. I think we must soon tell Lia that she has a cousin who will wish to meet her, likely within the next few months. If we don’t, the duchess will eventually take matters into her own hands.”

The only reason Gillian probably wasn’t riding hell-bent for leather for Yorkshire at this very moment was because Jack had sworn the duke to a reluctant secrecy on the matter, at least for now. Once Gillian found out, there would be no stopping her.

“I suppose,” Rebecca said. “Although I fail to see how the relationship benefits Lia one bit. After all, the Duchess of Leverton, despite her illegitimate origins, is the daughter of aristocrats and royalty and has the bluest blood in the land. Whereas Lia…”

“Comes from good English stock and has a mother and grandmother who love her,” Jack interjected. Rebecca Kincaid had come from a family of prosperous merchants in London, and she would have made a respectable marriage if fate hadn’t set her on a different course.

Her warm smile rewarded him. “Thank you, Jack. You’ve always been so kind to us. No wonder my granddaughter worships the ground you walk on.”

Her observation made him mentally blink. It seemed an odd way to characterize Lia’s affection for him.

“Ah, thank you,” he said. “So I take it you do not wish to inform Lia about her connection to the Duchess of Leverton, or some of her other relations, at least for the time being?”

She nodded. “Yes. I must ponder the best way to approach the subject with my granddaughter. Lia must not be allowed to make assumptions about a relationship with the duchess, or make any demands on her. That will only lead to heartache for her. She can never travel in such exalted circles, nor should she have any expectation of doing so.”

Her assessment was likely correct. Unlike Gillian, Lia could never hope to ascend into the ranks of the aristocracy, or even the country gentry. Rebecca’s fondest wish had always been for Lia to make a respectable marriage with a local merchant or prosperous farmer, and Jack had always known that would be the kindest, happiest outcome for her. But even that future was in jeopardy, thanks to his uncle’s stupidity.

“Very well,” he replied. “I’ll defer to your judgment for now. But when the Levertons visit Stonefell, we must tell Lia the truth—if not before.”

Rebecca looked relieved, as if she’d been expecting an argument. “Of course, my dear boy. And thank you for trusting me.”

They heard a quick footfall out in the hall. A moment later the door opened and Lia rushed in.

“Oh, confound it, Jack,” she said. “I had no idea you were here. I ran down from the big house as soon as Merton told me he’d seen you cutting through the gardens.” She rested a hand on his arm and stretched up on her toes to give him a soft kiss on the cheek. “It’s shocking that I wasn’t here to greet you. Please forgive me.”

Jack stared down at her, slightly disoriented, as if someone had given him a knock on the brain-box.

He hadn’t seen her since his uncle’s funeral, when grief and worry had left her pretty face pinched and wan. Enveloped in mourning clothes and heavy shawls to keep out the chill spring rains, Lia had seemed almost like a sad child, sorely in need of a mother’s love and comfort.

Today, though, there was nothing childlike about her, and she was more than merely pretty. His Lia was now full-grown and simply beautiful.

She gazed up at him with peacock-blue eyes alight with affection. Her skin glowed with the warmth of the summer sun and the flush of her exertions. Her enchanting face, with its tip-tilted nose and lush pink mouth, was framed by silky dark hair, some of it failing haphazardly from the simple knot on top of her head.  As for her figure, her faded green riding habit with its trim bodice showcased a graceful body that held more than its share of pleasing curves.

When the hell had Lia developed breasts that he actually noticed?

His visits to Stonefell had been rare these last three years, given the fact that he’d spent much of that time on the Continent with the army. In the meantime, his little friend had matured into a woman, with results that were rather astonishing.

And alarming.

Her brow creased and her smile slid into one of perplexity. “Jack, you look as if you don’t know me,” she said with a self-conscious laugh. Then her smile snuffed out completely. “Oh, am I being too familiar?”

She took a quick step back and dipped into a curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord. I let my enthusiasm run away with me.”

Her anxious response jolted him back to himself. He pulled her into a bear hug, all too conscious of how delightful her soft breasts felt against his body.

“Goose, of course not,” he said, planting a brief kiss on the top of her head before letting go. “I was just a bit surprised to see you, that’s all. You’re looking very well, I must say.”

She wrinkled her nose. “That’s a complete plumper. I look a wreck, but I didn’t want to take the time to change and risk missing you.”

Rebecca ran a critical eye over her granddaughter. “You do look rather disheveled, my love. I wasn’t aware you were planning on shoeing the mare yourself, but the soot on the hem of your habit would suggest you were.”

Lia burst into laughter, and the light, clear sound of it loosened the tangled knot in Jack’s chest that had moved in some weeks ago. He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed her laughter.

“I know,” she said. “But poor Markwith is so busy these days. I thought I’d help him by taking Dorcas down to the blacksmith and saving him the trouble of the trip.”

Jack mentally grimaced. In the last year his head groom had been forced to let go two stableboys. That Lia was now acting as a stable hand had the knot in his chest twisting tight again.

“I’m sorry, Lia,” he said. “You shouldn’t have had to do that.”

“You know I don’t mind,” she said as she folded herself onto the footstool at her grandmother’s feet. Rebecca reached out to stroke Lia’s thick hair. They were so close. With the death of Jack’s uncle, the two women truly now had only each other.

And him.

“Next time you need something, just tell me,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Her eyebrows arched up. “I will when you’re in residence. But that’s not very often.”

Rebecca gave her an admonishing tap on the shoulder. “That’s no way to speak to his lordship, my love.”

Lia’s eyes rounded with mock horror. “Oh, I do hope I haven’t offended him.” She gave him a comical bow, her nose almost touching the floor. “Forgive my impertinence, Lord Lendale, I beg of you.”

He shook his head. “Brat.”

She grinned. “Sorry, but I can’t help teasing. It’s just so good to see you.” She glanced over her shoulder at Rebecca. “We missed him greatly, did we not, Granny?”

“Indeed we did. But life is much changed these days, which is something we must all accept,” her grandmother said in doleful tones.

Might as well get it over with.

“Yes, and along those lines,” he said, “there’s some business I need to discuss with you.”

Rebecca perked up, looking hopeful, which made him feel even worse. He struggled to find words that would soften the blow.

After several fraught seconds, Lia breathed out an exasperated sigh. “Oh, blast. I thought so. It’s no surprise, Jack. Just get it out.”

“Ah, what exactly are you referring to?” He’d never discussed estate business with her.

“That your uncle left us destitute, of course, and that your mother wants you to kick us out to the lane. Evict us from Bluebell as soon as possible.”

When he simply stared at her, his mouth gaping open like a bumpkin’s, her eyebrow went up in a knowing, cynical lift.

“Right on both counts, I see,” she said. “How unlucky can we get?”


“Close your mouth, Lord Lendale,” Lia said dryly. “You look like the village half-wit.”

Jack’s lips curved up in a heart-stopping, wry smile that was typical of him. He’d never once spoken to her in anger, even though she’d given him cause more than once over the years. He was the kindest man she’d ever met.

“Lia Beatrice Kincaid,” her grandmother exclaimed in a horrified voice, “you will apologize to his lordship this instant. We are here by his grace and generosity, or have you forgotten that?”

Lia sighed. “Oh, very well. I’m sorry, Jack. I was an utter beast to say that. Please accept my sincere apology.”

His smile faded as he shook his head. He looked so weary and frustrated. Lia knew better than anyone that Stonefell had fallen on hard times, but his manner suggested it was even worse than she’d thought.

“No, it’s I who should apologize to both of you,” he said. “Lia is not far off the mark.”

Her heart couldn’t seem to decide whether to leap into her throat or plummet to her feet. She had to swallow a few times before she could formulate an answer. “We’ll need a few weeks to pack up and make arrangements to store our things. Then again, because most of the furniture belongs to you, a week or so should do it, I imagine.”

Both Jack and her grandmother were now staring at her with stunned expressions.

“What?” she said. “Your mother obviously wants to transform Bluebell Cottage back into the dower house, which means we’d best be out of here as soon as possible.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Jack replied through clenched teeth. “Bluebell Cottage is your home for as long as you want it.”

She noticed he didn’t deny that his mother wanted Bluebell. Not that Lady John would ever think to live here while Jack was still a bachelor. No, she would reside at Stonefell as lady of the manor for as long as she could. Evicting them from the cottage was about ridding the estate of their noxious presence, as Lia had once inadvertently overheard her say. Lady John loathed Granny and would see this as her chance to finally get rid of her.

Her ladyship didn’t exactly approve of Lia either. In fact, Lady John had always deplored her son’s friendship with both the first and third generations of the Notorious Kincaids and probably even saw Lia as a threat to Jack’s moral rectitude.

It was a ridiculous notion. First, Jack would never besmirch any woman’s good name—not that Lia’s family name covered her in glory. Second, and perhaps more germane, Jack would be more likely to succumb to gales of hilarity at the idea of any sort of intimate relationship with her. In fact, she’d wager the thought had never crossed his mind.

She was the one who was hopelessly infatuated, not Jack. And she didn’t expect that to change any time soon.

“Thank you, dear boy,” Granny said in a grateful tone. “I know we shall always be able to depend on your generosity.”

“Just as we know we can’t take advantage of it forever,” Lia interjected with a warning glance at her grandmother. She and Granny had talked about this, trying to plan for the worst. And it seemed as if the worst was finally upon them.

“You are not taking advantage,” Jack said firmly. “I count you both as family and always will.”

Lia managed a smile. “That’s kind of you Jack, but—”

“But what does it actually mean?” The hard, clean angles of his face took on a cynical cast. “You might well ask.”

“Then I am asking,” she said. Granny was clearly too disturbed to handle the tricky negotiations that seemed about to occur. That was up to Lia. “Naturally, my grandmother had been hoping for some kind of annuity from your uncle, or an inheritance that would give us a measure of independence. It’s been weeks now and we’ve heard nothing about it from the estate’s lawyer, or from you.”

“Not that we wished to press you,” Granny hastily added. “We both know you’ve been so busy trying to settle things. It’s completely understandable that you haven’t had a chance to speak with us.”

Lia crossed her arms over her chest. “Not that we’ve actually had the chance to speak with you about it because this is the first time you’ve been back to Stonefell since Lord Lendale’s funeral.”

Jack’s dark brows snapped together in a bit of a glower, but Lia didn’t care. She and Granny had more or less been confined to the cottage during that awful week when the family descended for the funeral. Even though they’d spent more time with the marquess than anyone, and even though she and Granny had truly been his family, they’d been exiled from all official activities. Jack had stopped by a few times but was too harassed to pay them much attention. Then he’d disappeared for over two months, although at least he’d written them during his absence.

Still, it had felt perilously close to neglect. That had stung—probably more than it should, if she had half a brain in her head.

“Well, I’m here now,” he said. “And I promise we’ll get everything sorted out.”

“Is there an annuity after all?” Granny asked.

When Jack hesitated, Lia knew what he would say. “No, Gran, I don’t think so.”

“Lia is unfortunately correct,” Jack said in a regretful tone. “My uncle did not leave an annuity for you, Aunt Rebecca. I’m so sorry.”

“But he left me something, did he not?” Granny asked in a hopeful voice. “Enough to set us up in a small house in the village, perhaps?”

Jack looked as if he’d accidentally ingested something toxic. “I’m afraid not.”

Lia flinched. She’d been preparing for the worst but had assumed they’d get some sort of small bequest—something to tide them over until she could think how to support them longer term. Granny’s lover had been a marquess, for heaven’s sake. Even though the estate was in poor financial health, surely he’d had other income to draw upon.

“And no dowry for me either, I’m sure,” she said, trying not to sound bitter.

Or terrified, even though that emotion lurked just below the surface. But without some sort of bequest to serve as a dowry, Lia had no hope of attracting a respectable suitor. Not that she’d been dangling for one, but she knew Granny had been pinning her hopes on that. After all, his lordship had promised years ago that he’d give Lia enough funds to overcome the stigma of her birth.

Now that hope was dying an ignominious death. Without anything from the estate, they would be almost entirely dependent on Jack for support.

“No, I’m sorry to say.” He sounded almost as bitter as Lia felt. “He left Aunt Rebecca some personal items and bequeathed a few things to you—mostly books and some prints from his library that you were fond of.”

Lia did a quick mental calculation. If they were the items she suspected, the results were not encouraging.

“Goodness,” said Granny in a faint voice. “That is discouraging news, I must say.”

She looked so pale that Lia was afraid she would faint. Casting an irate glance at Jack—who didn’t deserve it—she crossed to the bellpull and yanked on it. “We’ll have some tea, Granny. Then we’ll figure this out, I promise.”

“There’s nothing to figure out,” Jack said in a clipped voice. “I’m going to take care of you. Both of you.”

“Splendid, just like the previous marquess,” Lia retorted.

Jack opened his mouth, but Sarah’s entrance forestalled his reply. Lia’s former nursemaid, who now served the dual roles of housekeeper and cook, threw a sharp glance at her mistress and then a suspicious one at Jack.

Sarah knew all their secrets and hopes, and their worries, too. She’d developed an unwavering loyalty to Rebecca Kincaid years ago, happily abandoning an unsuccessful acting career to take up Lia’s care. Sarah had moved north with Rebecca and her granddaughter, devoting her life to them.

If the Kincaids went down, Sarah would go down with them.

“Oh, I was expecting Elsie. I’m sorry to bother you, Sarah,” Granny said, clearly attempting to rally. “But his lordship would like some tea. Could you bring up the tray?”

“Yes, ma’am, right away.” Sarah bobbed a quick curtsy in Jack’s direction. “My lord.”

He gave her a kind smile. “It’s nice to see you, Sarah. I hope you’ve been well.”

“Well enough, all things considered, my lord,” she said in a blighting tone.

Sarah had known Jack since he was a boy. Clearly, she was no more impressed with the new marquess than she’d been with the grubby lad who’d tracked mud into her kitchen. And Jack’s sigh indicated he’d received the housekeeper’s message. Lia was almost beginning to feel sorry for him.


She stood. “I’ll help with the tea tray, Sarah.”

The housekeeper looked scandalized. “I should say not. You’ll sit here with his lordship and act like the proper young lady you were raised to be.”

“Oh, Lord,” she sighed, sitting back down.

After another scowling glance in Jack’s direction and a few dark mutterings under her breath, Sarah exited the room.

“Sorry,” Lia said to Jack. “She’s very worried about us.”

“She needn’t be,” he said. “As you said, we’ll figure it out.”

“Then along those lines,” Granny said, “why don’t you apprise us of exactly where things stand? I knew Arthur was concerned about some investments he’d made, but he didn’t like to discuss such matters with me. He was concerned that I would worry.”

Lia had to swallow a snort. The truth was, his lordship had liked to live in a pretty fantasy when he came to Bluebell Cottage. Financial discussions would have injected an unsavory note into a relationship where both parties worked very hard to maintain a steadfast air of unmarred domestic bliss.

How stupid and shortsighted of them all.

“Yes, no doubt,” Jack said dryly. “As to how bad it is, I won’t insult you by trying to minimize the situation. The last few harvests have been disappointing, and my uncle did not, perhaps, make some of the best decisions when it came to managing certain aspects of estate business.”

“That’s obvious,” Lia muttered.

It was well known that Lord Lendale had frequently ignored the advice of his cautious and wise estate manager. But when the old marquess had gotten an idea in his head about how to make money, there’d been no talking him out of it.

“None of that, my dear,” Granny said in a stern tone. “I will not have you tarnish my Arthur’s memory.”

“Unfortunately, Lia’s assessment is correct,” Jack said. “My uncle meant well, but he had a poor head for both estate business and investments.”

Over the next few minutes, he outlined how appalling a businessman his uncle had been. By the time he finished, Lia felt almost faint with horror and Granny looked as if she might really faint.

Thankfully, Sarah chose that moment to bring in the tea tray. Lia immediately poured her grandmother a cup and then handed one to Jack. Sarah had piled the tray high with biscuits and cake, but they remained untouched. After Jack’s gruesome report, they’d all, apparently, lost their appetites.

With a weary sigh, Granny placed her teacup on the occasional table next to her chair. “I’m truly sorry, Jack. On top of everything else, you have the added burden of two useless women on your hands.”

Anger flared like a torch in Lia’s chest. She didn’t consider herself useless, and her grandmother had given up everything, devoting her life to a man who’d left her in an appalling situation. And where had such selfless behavior left poor Granny? Utterly betrayed by the man she’d loved.

While Lia struggled to contain her fury, Jack thankfully stepped into the breach.

“You’re not to think that way for a moment, Aunt Rebecca,” he said in a kind but firm voice. “You know better than anyone how despair had taken hold of my uncle, even threatened his sanity. You brought him back from the brink and gave him years of happiness. You must never forget that.”

The story was a sad one. In a young love match, Jack’s uncle had married the daughter of one of his neighbors, a prosperous gentleman with a tidy estate. Lady Lendale had, by all accounts, been a sweet and pretty girl. They’d been deliriously happy for two years before Lady Lendale tragically died after a long and agonizing childbirth. The infant boy had survived, only to die a week later when he caught a fever. Lord Lendale had plunged into a melancholy that lasted for years and all but ruined his health. He’d vowed never to marry again, claiming he’d grieved enough for one lifetime.

While Lord Lendale never remarried, he did fall in love again, with a courtesan so notorious that no respectable man would marry her. Lia couldn’t help thinking, with a good deal of cynicism, that it had been the perfect solution for him.

Granny blinked several times before flashing him a grateful smile. “Thank you, dear boy. Your words give me a great deal of comfort.”

“You, on the other hand,” Jack said to Lia with mock sternness, “are quite useless. I think I’ll have to put you to work in the stables to earn your keep. Or set you up as the estate smithy.”

Lia snickered and even her grandmother seemed to relax a bit. They all knew she more than earned her keep, helping out in Stonefell’s gardens and lending whatever assistance she could to the wives and families of the tenant farmers.

“I might take you up on that offer if you promise to give me a nice set of livery,” she said. “But enough silliness. We really have put you in a pickle, Jack. Granny is right about that.”

The beginnings of a plan to address the situation had been coalescing in her mind because she’d begun to suspect Lord Lendale might not have provided for them. But she wasn’t quite ready to trot it out; Jack would not approve.

In fact, he would be furious if he knew.

“Not at all,” he said. “Things will go on as usual. All your bills are to be sent up to Mr. Lindsey and I will provide you with pin money every month.”

Lia scowled at him. “You can’t be expected—”

He held up an imperious hand. “What I expect is that you will not make a fuss about it. Things seem dire now, but it won’t always be so. Mr. Lindsey and I are working very hard to turn things around, and I’ll be discussing the situation with my bankers when next I’m in London. Everything will be fine, I assure you.”


The look he gave her was surprisingly stern. “No, Lia. For once, I want you to listen to me.”

“I always listen to you,” she said indignantly.

“Pardon my laughter,” he replied.

She was about to tell him what she thought of his response when her grandmother gave her head a little warning shake. Granny obviously had something to say to her and she didn’t want to do it in front of Jack.

He glanced at his pocket watch and stood. “Please forgive me, but I’ve got to get back to the house. I have an appointment with Richard Hughes.”

Mr. Hughes held one of the largest tenant farms at Stonefell. And like the other tenants, he’d been struggling to keep up with his rent. Lia was sure the meeting would be unpleasant for both of them.

“Poor Jack,” she said, also standing. “What an awful homecoming you’ve had. You must be wishing yourself back on the Continent, far away from all of us.”

His firm mouth curved in a rueful smile that failed to reach his eyes. “I’ll admit there are days I’d rather face a line of French bayonets than wade through another stack of bills, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon enough.”

Lia’s heart broke for him a little. Even though she was thrilled to have him back home, he’d loved military life. She knew he’d never complain about his new circumstances, other than the occasional joke. He’d take up his responsibilities, even if he truly didn’t feel suited to them, and he’d do the absolute best he could. Lia wished she could do more to ease his burden.

That, however, was not her place, nor would it ever be.

Jack leaned down and kissed Granny’s cheek. “I’ll come visit in the next day or so. We can discuss things in a little more detail then. In the meantime, you’re not to worry.”

“Thank you, dearest,” Granny said with a misty smile.

He swept Lia up in an encompassing hug. “And you stay out of trouble, pet. Understand?”

She hugged him back, briefly pressing her face into the fine wool of his riding jacket. “You must be thinking of some other girl,” she said, her voice slightly muffled. “I’m never any trouble at all.”

She felt his lips brush across the top of her hair. “No, you’re not,” he murmured. “In fact, I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

Her chest tightened with a mix of gratitude, sadness, and regret, but he was out the door a moment later, sparing her the necessity of a reply. Lia stared after him for a moment before turning to her grandmother.

To her surprise, Granny wasn’t looking downcast at all. Resigned, yes, but also…calculating?

“What?” Lia asked.

Her grandmother’s lips parted in a dazzling smile, the one that had apparently been the downfall of many a hardened rake when she’d been in her prime. Lia recognized that smile. It signaled that Granny was about to engage in a bit of ruthless manipulation.

Heaving a sigh, she trudged back to her seat.

“You can moan all you want, child,” her grandmother said, “but it’s time to face facts and be practical about our situation.”

“I’ve been trying to do just that for weeks,” Lia replied. “But you didn’t want to hear any of my suggestions.”

“Yes, I must admit I allowed myself to hope Arthur had done a better job of things. How foolish.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry I failed you, Lia. You have always been my first responsibility. I let my affection for Arthur get in the way of that.”

“To be fair, he did support us all these years. Despite the odd hiccup now and again, we’ve been comfortable. And happy.”

Most of the time they had been, and how many people could claim that? She and Granny loved Stonefell, despite the occasional snub from one of the more persnickety locals, or the sense of exclusion they felt on the rare occasions when Lord Lendale’s family had visited.

And then there was Jack, of course. He’d made everything seem worthwhile, even the snubs, the exclusions, and the leaky roof.

“My love for Arthur turned me soft,” Granny said. “I believed him when he said he’d always take care of us. I would not have made that mistake when I was younger. I should have asked for more as we went along, and insisted he make some kind of provision for you in writing.”

This sort of discussion always made Lia feel squeamish. But such arrangements were a simple fact of life for women like her mother and grandmother. She’d been spared that life and counted herself exceedingly fortunate in that respect.

“You, of course,” her grandmother continued, “will do better than I did. You have an excellent head for business, and I don’t think you’ll ever let a man take advantage of you. That will give you a sound basis for negotiations.”

Lia had cupped her chin in her hands, but her grandmother’s words had her bolting upright. “What are you talking about, Gran?”

Her grandmother folded her hands neatly in her lap and stared her straight in the eye. “When you look for a protector, you will negotiate a clear and detailed agreement for your ongoing support in writing. I’ll help you with that.”

“My protector?” Lia’s voice sounded rather screechy. “Do you mean a…”

“A lover? Don’t be a ninny, dear. Of course that’s what I mean.”

Aghast, Lia stared at her grandmother, who seemed in dead earnest. “But…but you always wanted me to find a respectable suitor,” she stammered. “To get married.”

For a moment a hollow, grieving look threw up ghosts in her grandmother’s deep blue eyes. But then her gaze shuttered and her chin firmed. “Of course I did, but we know that’s no longer possible. Without a dowry, no respectable man will offer for you.”

“Well…I don’t think that’s entirely true.” Lia felt quite certain the cheesemonger’s son would take her, even over his family’s objections, and then there was—

“Jimmy Lanstead?” her grandmother asked.

Lia nodded.

“Certainly not. No granddaughter of mine will marry a pig farmer,” Granny said in a haughty voice. “Especially one who rents his farm. We may be courtesans and actresses, my dear, but we are also Kincaids. We do have a standard to keep.”

Her grandmother could be an awful snob, but Lia couldn’t hold back a rush of relief. She had no desire to marry Jimmy Lanstead or anyone else.

Except Jack.

She firmly pushed that idea to the deepest recesses of her mind. It belonged in the dusty bin of broken dreams.

“I agree with you about Jimmy,” Lia said, “but trying to set me up as a courtesan is rather drastic. I’m not you or Mama. I’m not a patch on either of you.”

“Nonsense. You’ve grown into a stunning young woman. With a little help from me and some financial support, you could very well take London by storm.”

There were so many things wrong with that plan that Lia didn’t know where to start. “I have another idea, Gran, and I’m convinced it’s the best one we could possibly come up with.”

Her grandmother had been reaching to replenish her teacup, but her hand halted in midair. “I’m listening.”

“I’ll join Mama’s acting troupe. They’re looking for new company members now that they’re in London. Mama said so in her last letter. And I’m sure I could live with Mama and Mr. Lester in their town house in Kensington.”

Her grandmother regarded her with a dubious air. “Unfortunately, there are a number of critical drawbacks to that plan.”

“Such as?”

“You can’t sing, dance, or act.”

That was rather a low blow. “I’m not much of a singer, I grant you. But I’m sure I can learn to dance, and you know very well I can act.”

Lia had been playacting for as long as she could remember and had often dreamed girlish dreams of following in her mother’s famous footsteps. She’d put on any number of recitations for her grandmother and his lordship over the years and had staged skits and little dramas for the servants, often with help from the kitchen maids and footmen. Granny and Lord Lendale had often told her that she was as fine an actress as Mrs. Siddons.

“My darling, the truth is you’re a dreadful actress,” her grandmother said in a patient tone.

“But you and his lordship were always so enthusiastic about my performances,” she protested.

“Because we didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

“But what about the amateur theatricals I put on up at the house? The servants all seemed to think I was splendid.”

Her grandmother rolled her eyes.

She couldn’t help feeling daunted, but she had no intention of conceding—especially if the alternative was to become the next Notorious Kincaid. Lia was convinced she’d make an utter fool of herself as a courtesan, especially because her heart wouldn’t be in it.

“I don’t care what you say,” she said. “I’m writing to Mama tonight and telling her I’m coming to London. I can at least try out the notion on her and Mr. Lester and see what they say.”

Her grandmother seemed to waver for a moment, but then she grimaced. “I feel certain your mother will not be amenable to you taking up the theatrical life.”

“But she will be amenable to me becoming someone’s mistress?” Lia asked with disbelief.

Granny starched up. “It was good enough for me, was it not?”

“Look how well that’s turned out.”

“I’m sure under certain conditions your mother will agree to this plan,” Granny said, clearly determined to ignore Lia’s objections.

“And what are those conditions?”

“That won’t become entirely clear until I’ve had a chance to speak with Jack.”

Lia’s mind blanked for a few moments. “What in heaven’s name does Jack have to do with me becoming a courtesan?”

Granny’s eyebrows lifted with delicate incredulity. “Because you’re feeling a little squeamish about this plan, I think he should be your first.”

Lia got a very bad feeling—which was something, considering how alarming the entire discussion had been thus far. “First what?” she asked, praying she had misunderstood.

“Your first lover, of course. But only if I can persuade him to agree to our terms.”

Three Weeks With a Princess

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