Facebook giveaway!!

The Dukes of Vauxhall anthology (final) 800 px @ 300 dpi high res

Are you on facebook? I’m giving away a print copy of my latest release, THE DUKES OF VAUXHALL, a Regency anthology co-written with Christi Caldwell, Shana Galen, and Theresa Romain. Just click here to enter the giveaway. For more info on DUKES, please visit the Book Page.

And speaking of facebook, I’m planning a fun party in June to celebrate the upcoming release of my next book, THREE WEEKS WITH A PRINCESS (Improper Princesses 2).

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I’ll be featuring some swell authors as my guests, and there will be lots of giveaways and fun discussions. To check out the details and/or to RSVP, just click here.

And speaking of my next book, there are now three chapters from THREE WEEKS WITH A PRINCESS posted on my website. You can read them here.

Happy reading, folks!


Cover Reveal & Contest!

The Highlander's Princess Bride comp

In case you haven’t seen it, this is the amazing cover for THE HIGHLANDER’S PRINCESS BRIDE, the third book in my Improper Princesses Series. It’s a mashup of two classic movie musicals, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Sound of Music. With bagpipes. LOL! This book will be out in November, and you can read the blurb and excerpt on the Book Page.

To celebrate this fab cover, I’m running a facebook giveaway that features an ARC of my next book, THREE WEEKS WITH A PRINCESS, and a bunch of books off my backlist.

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To enter the contest, just click here. And for more info on THREE WEEKS WITH A PRINCESS (out in June), check out the Book Page. If you’d like to read more excerpts from the book, be sure to sign up for my regular newsletter. Exclusive excerpts and contests right up until release day!

 

 


Exclusive excerpt and giveaway!!

three-weeks-with-a-princess

Would you like to read the opening of my next book, THREE WEEKS WITH A PRINCESS? Then hop on over to the Ramblings From This Chick Historical Christmas Event! You can read the prologue, which features my hero and heroine at a Christmas party, and also enter my giveaway.

Just click here to read the excerpt.

PS. I’ve got another excerpt from the book posted here on my website.

Happy reading!


Exclusive Excerpt – MY FAIR PRINCESS!

My Fair Princess 2

Are you ready for another excerpt from MY FAIR PRINCESS, the first book in my Improper Princesses Series? This is chapter 6; you can read the first 5 chapters on the Excerpt Page.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Gillian was getting perfectly sick of perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at least entertaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Mamma. I was very polite.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead,” she said, resigned.

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

***

You can pre-order MY FAIR PRINCESS (releasing on Aug. 30th) for only $4.99 in digital and $5.99 in print from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and IndieBound. The book is also available for pre-order in audio format. For more info and additional buy links, please visit the Book Page on my website.

PS. When you pre-order the book, you’ll receive a bonus short story about the Renegade Royals, the heroes of my previous series. Just click here for details!


New Excerpt & a Fab Contest!

My Fair Princess 2

MY FAIR PRINCESS, book one in my forthcoming Improper Princesses Series, will be released on August 30th. As promised, I’ve been uploading a new chapter from the book every month. Here’s chapter 5–you can read the first four chapters on the Excerpt Page.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck with that, old son.

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

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

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

“Well, if you’re sure,” Gillian said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On whose good authority?”

“My own,” she said in a droll voice.

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

Not if I can help it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so he told himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire away,” she said.

He repressed a sigh. One problem at a time.

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

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

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

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

“Miss Dryden . . . ”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her loyalty was commendable, but hardly helpful.

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

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

Subtlety was not her strong point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles bent to retrieve the handkerchief the contessa had accidentally 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.

***

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