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.”