Standing in the middle of the path, Gillian studied Charles with a bemused expression, as if he were speaking Hindi.
“Why the devil—” She stopped, pressing her lips together when he raised his eyebrows. “Why in heaven’s name would you take us to see an ornamental dairy in the middle of London?” She punctuated her marginally more polite comment by rolling her eyes.
Aunt Lucy had been correct—Gillian Dryden was a social catastrophe in the making. Charles wondered again why he’d agreed to tutor her in the fine art of polite behavior.
After Gillian’s quip yesterday about hunting bandits, the discussion had gone rapidly downhill, only ending when Aunt Lucy ordered them to stop behaving like children. That had been an accurate assessment of them, especially Griffin Steele. He’d threatened to run Charles through with a blade if Charles made one more insulting comment about his sister. Steele’s threat had come when Charles suggested that Gillian’s lowbrow behavior was more suited to a tavern brawl than a polite discussion. Gillian had retorted that she’d find a brawl a great deal more entertaining than talking to him.
When Aunt Lucy had finally reduced them to grumbling acquiescence, she’d looked at Charles with a woeful expression and released him from any obligation to Gillian or the family.
“You mustn’t stay a moment longer and subject yourself to this unfortunate scene,” she’d said, fluttering her lace hankie at him as if waving a flag of surrender. She’d ended on a little quaver that Charles suspected was entirely feigned.
Clearly affected by her grandmother’s artful performance, Gillian had blushed pink and bitten her lower lip. Still, she held her tongue, neither apologizing nor contradicting her grandmother. Steele obviously didn’t want Charles there by that point either, so they’d given him the perfect out.
Though he’d had every intention of taking the opportunity to escape from the Marbury Madhouse, he’d found himself settling back in his chair, thinking for a minute or two. Then he’d made some inane comment about growing pains and how he knew they’d all get along just fine. His about-face had stunned Gillian and Steele, but not, he suspected, his aunt.
Aunt Lucy had exploited his weak point—his infernal pride. If there was one thing Charles hated, it was the notion that there was someone he couldn’t bend to his will. He came from a long line of warriors and politicians, stretching back to William the Conqueror. Nobody ever told a Penley what he could or couldn’t do. It was like waving a flag in front of a bull, and yesterday it had worked like a charm on Charles.
He touched Gillian’s elbow and got her walking again. “Many visitors to London come to see the ornamental dairy. And I thought you might enjoy seeing Green Park and its various attractions.”
“You obviously don’t know me very well.” She glared at the pretty little farm building as if its very presence was an offense against nature. “The whole thing is ridiculous, but I suppose nothing should surprise me about Londoners.”
“Miss Dryden, it’s usually not the done thing to berate a gentleman when he’s kind enough to take a young lady on an outing. Instead, she displays a becoming gratitude by showing her enthusiasm for the activity, even if such enthusiasm is partly feigned.”
“Lie, in other words.” She crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the large feather muff that dangled from one wrist. It hung down like some strange animal, making Charles wonder why she’d carted it along in the first place. Fortunately, it was the only flaw in her otherwise elegant ensemble. A dark green, close-fitting pelisse displayed her tall and naturally graceful figure to excellent advantage, and was matched by a dashing grenadier-style hat that sat at a rakish angle on her glossy, dark curls.
There was no doubt Gillian was a lovely girl, though not in the usual style. She had high, sharp cheekbones and a determined chin, countered by a surprisingly lush mouth and big, sherry-colored eyes that dominated her face. It was an enticing combination that would attract a fair amount of masculine attention, if she didn’t scare off every potential suitor.
He steered her off the Broad Walk onto one of the paths to the dairy, throwing a glance over his shoulder to check on the progress of the Contessa Paterini and her maid. They lagged behind, strolling at a pace that was little more than a crawl. Gillian’s mother was serving as chaperone on this most harmless of outings. Given the rumors that were already beginning to swirl about Gillian, Charles wasn’t taking any chances. For the next several weeks he would do all he could to ensure that not a shred of scandal could attach to either Gillian or himself.
Good luck with that, old son.
The contessa gave them a cheery little wave. “Don’t worry about us, my dears. Maria and I will meet you at the dairy.”
Gillian turned around. “Are you all right, Mamma? Would you like to stop and rest for a few minutes?”
“We’re fine, darling. We’ll just toddle along at our own pace, won’t we?” She smiled at her companion, a stout Italian woman who regarded London in general and Green Park in particular with morose disapproval. The poor woman seemed to have only a few words of English, so the move to England must have been particularly difficult for her.
“Well, if you’re sure,” Gillian said.
“Perfectly. You must stop worrying about me and enjoy yourself.”
It was clear, however, that Gillian worried about her mother a great deal.
The contessa was a faded beauty with a gentle, fragile manner that spoke to both her kind nature and poor health. She was much changed since the last time Charles had seen her, years ago in Sicily. Then, she’d been a vivacious young matron, basking in the love of a devoted husband and enjoying a gay life in Palermo. Her spirit had vanished after her husband’s murder. As far as Charles could tell, the contessa now drifted through life, content to let Lady Marbury or Gillian make all the decisions. The contessa clearly had no influence over her daughter’s behavior, only clucking ineffectually with distress when Gillian said or did something outrageous.
Their relationship was entirely upended, as far as Charles could tell. When he’d arrived this morning to escort them to the park, Gillian had fussed over her mother like a cat with a lone kitten. He’d finally gotten them moving by promising to bring them straight home if the contessa displayed any sign of fatigue. Even then, Gillian only agreed to venture forth into the wilds of Mayfair after standing outside on the steps for a good three minutes to make sure that the air was neither too damp nor too cold for her mamma.
“Come, Miss Dryden, your mother is in good hands. The weather today is quite mild, and I’m sure the fresh air will do her good.”
“I doubt it,” Gillian said. “The weather’s been positively beastly since we arrived. I always knew England was cold and damp, but this is ridiculous. It’s May already, and we’re all freezing our ar—” She cut herself off with an adorable grimace. “Sorry. What I meant to say is that it’s already May, and it seems unseasonably cool.”
“That was a commendably dull comment on the weather. Well done. One would think you a born Londoner.”
She flashed him a smile that transformed her face from pretty to entrancing. “I’m not a complete dolt. In fact, I have it on good authority that I’m actually quite teachable.”
“On whose good authority?”
“My own,” she said in a droll voice.
Charles had to laugh. She clearly could be charming when she chose to be. She also possessed a surprising degree of fortitude for one so young. That was another reason he hadn’t been able to say no to her tutoring. Simply by being born, she’d been forced to share her mother’s shame, and it would trail behind her like a noxious cloud for the rest of her life.
Not if I can help it.
“The English prattle on about the weather all the time,” Gillian said, “and not simply because it’s a safe topic. If you ask me, you’re all obsessed with it.”
“Spoken like a woman who has spent her life basking in a sunny clime. If you had to live in a damp, drafty house with a chimney that invariably smoked, you’d be obsessed too.”
When she smiled up at him and took his arm, he almost jerked from the shock. It was the first time she’d willingly touched him. It somehow felt . . . important.
“Actually, we think about the weather quite a lot in Sicily,” she said as they strolled. “It’s bloody hot in the summer, and if we don’t get enough rain, it can be disastrous for the farmers.”
“Substitute ghastly for bloody, and you’ve made another unexceptionable comment. I’m quite amazed at our ability to carry on a rational conversation, as if we were two ordinary civilized people.”
“I did promise Grandmamma I would try. However, a disgustingly wealthy duke strolling about Green Park with the illegitimate daughter of a prince doesn’t strike me as very ordinary.”
“Perhaps not, but I would suggest you refer to neither my wealth nor your parentage in polite company. Or any company, for that matter.”
“Yes, I suppose it would be horribly vulgar to acknowledge my natural father in any way.”
“Almost as vulgar as referring to the state of a man’s purse.”
She laughed, a full-throated, delightful sound, warm and infectious. Charles had no doubt it would draw men to her in a snap. His duty was to make sure they were the right kind of men.
“No one seemed to have such delicate compunctions in Sicily,” she said. “All the aristocrats I knew talked about wealth a great deal, especially the women. That isn’t surprising, I suppose, since they’re usually dependent on male largesse.” She shook her head. “I’m so glad I’m not.”
“Did you know many aristocrats in Sicily?” He’d formed the impression that she’d been kept very much out of the way by her family, especially when Lord Marbury was alive.
“Enough to know what I’m talking about,” she said in a defensive tone.
He would lay bets there was a story behind that comment. But she obviously had no desire to talk about it, and he really wasn’t interested in knowing.
Or so he told himself.
“I assure you that the average English aristocrat is as obsessed with money as his counterparts in other countries,” he said. “We just have the odd notion that one doesn’t talk about money. We’d rather just spend it.”
“Most everyone worries about money, now that I think about it.”
“Especially if you don’t have it,” he said dryly.
“There are a lot of people in Sicily who don’t,” she said with a frown. “The poverty in the countryside is appalling.”
“It’s the same here. Now that the soldiers are returning home from the war, it’s difficult for them to find work.” Even on his own prosperous estates, he’d had trouble absorbing the men who’d returned to their villages and tenant farms after the long conflict.
“You seem to be doing all right. But I imagine disgustingly wealthy dukes generally do make out rather well.” She flashed him a quick smile that took the sting out of the comment.
He held up a finger. “Vulgar, remember?”
“I stand corrected. What topics may I properly engage in, Your Grace?”
Charles glanced over his shoulder. Contessa Paterini and her woman had fallen even farther behind.
“We’ll get to that in a minute.” He steered her to a small enclosure next to the dairy, where a few cows ambled about and grazed. “There’s something I need to ask you first.”
Gillian lounged gracefully against the fence, negligently swinging the muff that dangled from her wrist. Charles made a mental note to work on her posture at another time.
“Fire away,” she said.
He repressed a sigh. One problem at a time.
“It’s not an easy topic to discuss,” he said, “and I have no wish to embarrass you. But since we’re already talking about dukes, I thought I’d better ask you about . . . ” He hesitated, searching for a delicate way to phrase it.
“My esteemed father, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland? Is that what you want to ask me about?” She still leaned casually against the fence, still swinging her purse. But the air around her now seemed charged with tension.
“I know it’s awkward,” he said. “But I need to know how things stand with him.”
“It’s not awkward for me at all,” she said in a cool voice. “Surely you know that I’ve never met the bastard.”
“Miss Dryden . . . ”
“Oh, wait,” she said in a musing tone. “I forgot. Technically, I’m the bastard, not my natural father. I suppose I shouldn’t confuse the point.”
Charles resisted the impulse to rub his temples. He could sympathize with her feelings about her father, but her near-fatal inability to guard her speech would surely be her undoing. Though Cumberland was not a popular man, he was a royal duke. The sins of the father would be visited upon the child if she didn’t learn to hold her tongue.
“I readily understand your feelings, but might I suggest that you refrain from using such terms to describe him?”
“How about poltroon, then? Or loose fish? Oh, I know—complete bounder. Will any of those do?” She smiled brightly at him, as if she were trying to be helpful.
“I would suggest Your Highness, or perhaps sir, if you are forced to address him or refer to him. I’m hopeful that you won’t be placed in such a position, but we must be prepared for it. While it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be introduced to him, you may one day find yourself at a ball or social event where he’s present.”
Gillian stood up straight. Anxiety darkened her big eyes as she glanced down the path toward her mother. The contessa had paused to speak with two little girls on an outing with their nursemaids. “You’re worried about what people might say to me about him, aren’t you? That if they make mean-spirited remarks, it will set me off.”
“People can say whatever they want about him—or me, for that matter. I’m used to it.” Gillian gave him a rueful smile. “And despite what you may think, I do know when to hold my tongue. My grandfather saw to my tutoring in that regard.”
Charles could believe it. From what he’d known of Lord Marbury, those lessons would not have been easy on her. It had been no secret that he’d vehemently objected to his daughter’s decision to keep her illegitimate child, and that the earl had been furious that the resulting scandal had forced them to leave England. Even though he’d subsequently gone on to have a distinguished career as a British diplomat in the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Marbury had never forgiven either his daughter or his granddaughter for subjecting the family to such humiliation.
“It’s a useful skill, even if the learning of it is often painful,” Charles said quietly. “I, too, had to learn how to curb my tongue. I won’t pretend it was easy.”
She threw him a sharp look, as if weighing his statement for truth. Then she nodded. “I didn’t like it much either. And I have to admit that I sometimes forget the lessons.” She huffed out a quiet laugh. “With predictable results, I’m sorry to say.”
His sympathy stirred. Gillian could be brash, but she also had a sweet, self-deprecating manner he found enormously appealing.
“The best way to handle gossip or ill-mannered remarks is to feign ignorance,” he said. “Simply give a vague smile and excuse yourself from the discussion.”
“You mean I shouldn’t plant them a facer or threaten to shoot them?” she asked, opening her eyes wide.
“I know it’s hard to fathom, but Englishwomen don’t generally engage in fisticuffs or duels.”
“How boring of them. I suppose I’ll have to find other ways to avenge myself on the gossips of London.” She lifted an eyebrow. “What do you think of poison?”
He was tempted to laugh. “Miss Dryden, it’s fine for you to engage in this sort of raillery with me or with intimate family, but—”
She waved a dismissive hand to interrupt. “I know, I know. If the situation should ever arise, I promise to be a paragon of good manners and stupidity. All of London can insult me until the cows come home, and I won’t say a word. I’ll simply smile and commence speaking of the weather.”
“Why does that promise fill me with more alarm than reassurance?”
She chuckled, then glanced past him. Her smile faded. “I do mean it when I say I don’t care if the gossips prattle on about me. But I worry about Mamma. She’s very sensitive, you know.”
Gillian tapped her chest, right over her heart. The gesture had the unfortunate effect of bringing his attention to the gentle swell of her breasts under her close-fitting garment. She wasn’t a buxom girl by any means, but she had more than enough curves to attract any man’s attention. They’d gotten his attention.
He jerked his gaze upward. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to notice his inappropriate regard.
“It upsets Mamma when people say something nasty about me,” Gillian said. “I won’t pick fights on my own behalf, but if they insult her, I won’t be held accountable for my actions.”
Her loyalty was commendable, but hardly helpful.
“Then I suggest you let me handle any problems that may arise.” When she started to object, he held up a restraining hand. “I’m quite capable of doing so, and a good deal more effectively than you could. Your grandmother and I should be able to keep any gossip to a whisper that will fade away once you’ve been out for a few weeks. Your task is to exercise self-restraint. If you do, eventually the ton will become bored with you and move on.”
She started to cross her arms over her chest, but got caught up in the ribbons of her muff. Blowing out an impatient breath, she tugged it off her wrist and looped it on the fence post behind her. When Charles raised his eyebrows with polite incredulity, she either didn’t get the point or chose to ignore it.
Subtlety was not her strong point.
“Do you also have power over the weather?” she asked. “Perhaps you can arrange for a sunny day, for once.”
He smiled. “I’ll see what I can do. Miss Dryden, please trust that I can handle any gossip about you or your mother, as I trust that you will have the good sense to allow me to do so. You have already told me that you are quite capable of keeping the peace when necessary. I expect nothing less of you.”
“Do you think you have the right to order me about because you’re a duke? I don’t care a fig about that.”
“As head of our family, I have your mother’s and your grandmother’s support in this matter. I’m sure they wish you to accord me the same level of trust.”
It seemed a bit risky to play the head of the family card this early in the game, but, somewhat to his surprise, it seemed to work. Gillian fumed for a few moments and then gave a grudging nod. “Oh, very well. But never assume I’ll sit quietly by while people insult my mother.” She reached out and poked him in the chest. “I expect you to deal with any such episodes in a decisive fashion. If you don’t, I will.”
“You have my word. And may I point out that young ladies are not encouraged to go around jabbing men in the cravat. They might take it amiss.”
“No doubt. You poor dears spend so much time on the blasted things, you’d probably burst into tears if I disturbed the folds.” She gave him a look of mock concern. “I do hope you’re not going to go into hysterics now.”
“My dear Miss Dryden, may I just say that you are an exceedingly annoying young lady?”
She laughed, her good humor restored. “So I understand. But here’s Mamma now. Perhaps we can finish this conversation another time.”
“We can agree that this particular conversation is closed.”
He ignored her muttered comment about having the last word as he turned to greet her mother.
“Gillian,” the contessa said, “do you not find Green Park simply delightful? It’s quite changed from my youth, when men often met here to fight duels. And you could never be sure a cutpurse wouldn’t leap out from behind a tree and rob you.”
“Goodness,” Gillian said, slipping a hand through her mother’s arm, “that does sound rather exciting.”
“Only to you, my love,” her mother said with rueful affection. “Shall we stroll back to the carriage? I think I’ve had enough fresh air for one day. Now don’t leave your muff dangling on the fence, Gillian. You don’t want to lose another one.”
With a sheepish smile, Gillian fetched her muff. She took her mother’s arm, fussing over her as they slowly made their way back to Piccadilly. Though the contessa gently protested that she was fine, it was obvious she was happy with her daughter’s attentions. Gillian’s devotion was commendable and touching, but Charles couldn’t help noting the imbalance in the relationship. Did anyone fuss over Gillian? Did anyone let her be what she should be—a pretty girl whose only care was which book to read next or what gown to wear at a ball?
Charles bent to retrieve the handkerchief the contessa had accidently dropped, when a voice he hadn’t heard in months came from behind him. It jerked him upright, as if someone had prodded him in the backside with a sharp stick.
“Well, look who it is,” the woman said with an amused lilt that was all too familiar. “Who would think to find His Grace, the Duke of Leverton, in Green Park at this hour? How splendid that you would descend from Mount Olympus to join us mortals in so pedestrian an activity.”
Charles swallowed a curse and adopted a perfectly bland, perfectly polite expression before he turned to confront the woman who’d once ruined his life.