Charles eyed his aunt. She seemed dead serious. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I could not have heard you correctly.” “There is nothing wrong with your hearing. You are the only person in this family who can provide Gillian with the necessary social skills to survive in the ton.”
Good God. She wanted him to introduce her scandal of a granddaughter into British society. It was an insane idea. “Leaving aside the unusual nature of the request, what would be the end goal of such a project?”
“The usual end for genteel young ladies—marriage.”
It would be false modesty to deny that he had considerable social and political influence, but even he couldn’t perform miracles. “Pardon my plain speaking, but do I look like a matchmaker to you?” He didn’t bother to mask his incredulity.
“Don’t be such a ninny, Charles. As if any man would be up to the task,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Her mother and I will manage that element. But Gillian is, for lack of a better term, a gem in the rough. Your assistance is needed for one purpose only—to smooth out the rough edges and make her a suitable marriage prospect for a respectable gentleman.”
Mystified that his aunt would even consider so outrageous a project, he glanced around the handsomely appointed room, then ran a quick, practiced eye over her gown and first-rate jewels.
She laughed, clearly reading his mind. “We’re not out to catch a rich husband for her, Charles. Nor do we stand in need of financial support from you or anyone else. Gillian has a very generous dowry, bestowed on her by her stepfather. What we do require is your social capital and your support as the head of the family.”
So the girl was wealthy. That would certainly help—or at least encourage eligible suitors to overlook her unfortunate background. “That part shouldn’t be a problem, as long as she is presentable.”
“And therein lies the rub,” Aunt Lucy said dryly.
“Why? Her mother is a most charming, accomplished woman. Can she not take her own daughter in hand? With the help of the appropriate tutors and a dancing master, of course.”
“Unfortunately, Julia suffers from uncertain health. I do not wish to tax her anymore than I have to. And Gillian can be quite taxing.”
“What about a governess?”
“My granddaughter doesn’t want a governess. Never did,” Aunt Lucy said tersely.
“Most girls don’t. That doesn’t mean they don’t need one.”
“Regardless, it was next to impossible to find an acceptable English candidate willing to move to Sicily. The point is moot.”
“Aunt Lucy, forgive me, but this sounds like a mad scheme destined to fail.”
“It cannot fail,” she said in a tight voice. “You know Gillian’s difficult situation. Her security and happiness depend upon finding a good, respectable man who can look out for her. Protect her from . . . from all the pitfalls that lie in wait for a girl like her.”
God, what a thickhead he was. Of course that was the problem.
The ton had its share of roués, rakes, and others who engaged in less than respectable activities. Most of those men made a point of steering clear of gently bred girls, knowing there would be hell to pay if they dallied with them. But to a woman in Gillian Dryden’s position, they would be merciless. Every rake in London would try to drag her down into his sordid world, where she would be forever lost to her family and friends.
To such men, it would be a delicious challenge to ensnare a girl like Gillian—innocent, but by their foul standards, still fair game.
“Aunt Lucy, why in God’s name did you bring the poor girl back to England in the first place? Surely you understood what would happen.”
She chewed that over like a piece of moldy old bread. “We didn’t have a choice.”
Obviously, his aunt was holding something back, but Charles decided to let it go for now. If he did decide to help Miss Dryden—and that was a big if—he’d demand a full accounting of what he was up against. He hated surprises, and this little interview had already exceeded his tolerance for them.
“All right, perhaps we should be approaching this problem from a different angle,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me exactly which accomplishments and skills Miss Dryden does possess? Then I might be able to deduce how I can assist you.”
“Assist Gillian,” his aunt said stubbornly.
Though tutoring a grubby girl would hardly rate high on any man’s list of preferred activities, he gave her an encouraging nod.
“Well, she speaks three foreign languages and is quite adept in Latin, too.”
One generally didn’t need to parse verb tenses in a ballroom, but it was a start. “Is one of those languages French?”
“Of course. Gillian’s accent is excellent, I might add. She also speaks very good Spanish.”
“Splendid. What else?”
“She’s well versed in history and good at mathematics and the natural sciences. Her knowledge of animal husbandry is remarkable, in fact. That comes from spending most of her life on her stepfather’s country estate.”
Unless she intended to pursue a first at Oxford—or marry a farmer—those skills were more a hindrance than a help. But it sounded as if the girl had a good mind, which was nothing to sniff at. After all, there were men who had no desire to marry an ignorant woman, no matter how pretty she might be.
Charles was one of them. He had learned long ago how dangerous pretty could be.
“And what about feminine accomplishments? Does she play an instrument or sing?”
Aunt Lucy shook her head.
“Not an insurmountable problem,” he said. “Does she draw or paint?”
“How is her needlework?”
Aunt Lucy was beginning to look morose. “Gillian would rather stab herself in the eye with the needle than spend even a minute butchering an innocent piece of cloth.”
“A direct quote, I assume. Well, then, can she at least comport herself with grace on the dance floor?” He feared he already knew the answer.
“We hired a dancing master for the voyage back from Sicily, but it didn’t go well. Gillian insisted we dismiss him before we reached England or . . . ”
“Or?” he prompted.
Aunt Lucy’s expression suggested she’d just swallowed a nasty dose of physic. “Or she’d run him through.”
“You cannot be serious.”
“She wasn’t feeling well at the time, so it wasn’t entirely her fault. The lessons aggravated her shoulder injury.”
“What happened to her shoulder?”
Aunt Lucy’s gaze skittered off to the side. Then she took a deep breath and looked him directly in the eye. “She was shot. In a fight.”
He couldn’t repress a laugh. It couldn’t possibly be true.
“It is no joking matter,” Aunt Lucy said stiffly. “Gillian almost died.”
Charles was almost afraid to ask for details, but he’d gone too far to pull back now. And he had to admit to a morbid fascination at this point. “Who shot her?”
“Sicilian bandits. Very dangerous men, and exceedingly dangerous for Gillian.”
Before he could muster another question, the door opened, and a man strolled in—a man who resembled a bandit himself. But for his white shirt and cravat, he was dressed entirely in black, even down to his waistcoat. The look was completed by long black hair tied back over his shoulders and a faint scar that scored the side of his face.
He was a man who’d made his fortune running some of the most notorious gaming hells in London, one whose reputation as a scoundrel of the first order had only recently been mitigated by the sale of those hells and his marriage to the niece of a well-regarded viscount. Griffin Steele, bastard son of the Duke of Cumberland. Which made him the half brother of Gillian Dryden.
Good God. The situation was even worse than he thought.
“Ah, there you are, Griffin,” Aunt Lucy said with an affectionate smile. “Please come in and meet our guest.”
Charles sighed and came to his feet. “Now I know why you need my help,” he muttered.
Gillian Dryden was a walking scandal just by virtue of her existence. With Griffin Steele in the mix, the gossips would be delirious with joy. It was a social powder keg in the making, waiting for a spark.
“What did you say, Charles?” Aunt Lucy asked.
“Then allow me to introduce Griffin Steele. I’m quite sure you’ve deduced his relationship to Gillian.”
“With thundering clarity,” Charles said. Steele, the rotter, simply flashed him what could only be described as an evil grin.
Aunt Lucy ignored the comment. “Griffin, allow me to introduce you to His Grace, the Duke of Leverton. Your Grace, Mr. Griffin Steele.”
If a bow could be described as ironic, the flourishing one that Steele put on display fit the bill. Charles returned him a brief bow, fully aware that the man’s blood was bluer than his.
Aunt Lucy stood and took Charles’s hand in a firm clasp. “Leverton is going to help us with Gillian. I can’t think of anyone better able to do so.”
Steele gave him a slow, insolent perusal. While Charles was taller, Steele was whipcord lean with the air of someone who would just as soon cut your throat as shake your hand. Having been raised by a man who’d mastered the fine art of intimidation, Charles found Steele’s glare nothing more than annoying.
“His Grace doesn’t look too enthusiastic about the notion, if you ask me,” Griffin finally drawled.
Charles gave him a polite smile. “Funny, I don’t recall asking.”
Aunt Lucy’s scowl suggested they were acting like ill-behaved schoolboys.
“Griffin, would you fetch Charles a brandy, and yourself as well?” she asked. “I’m sure you could both use one.”
“Your guest seems quite at home,” Charles said, watching Steele stroll over to the drinks cabinet and select two glasses.
Aunt Lucy raised a haughty brow. “I count Griffin as a member of the family. As does Gillian.”
“I would assume so, since they are brother and sister,” Charles calmly replied. “But you certainly aren’t making things easier on yourself.”
“Because Gillian and I are both bastards?” Steele said, returning with the brandies. “That’s not an insurmountable obstacle. I’m living proof of that.”
“It’s much more difficult for a woman to overcome that particular impediment,” Charles said. “And since we’re speaking so frankly—”
“I always speak frankly,” Steele interrupted with a cold smile. “That way my intent is perfectly clear.”
“Then in the interest of being perfectly clear,” Charles said, “let me point out that your close relationship with Miss Dryden is unlikely to be of advantage to her. Rather the opposite, in fact.”
“Agreed,” Aunt Lucy said. “But since there is nothing to be done about that, we must simply work around it.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings,” Charles said. “But I believe it well-nigh impossible for you to achieve your goals in London. You might have more luck in one of the smaller spa towns, where standards are less exacting. Tunbridge Wells, perhaps.”
“That is not acceptable to me or to Gillian’s mother,” his aunt replied in a frosty tone.
“Or to me,” Steele added.
Charles allowed himself an exasperated sigh. “Aunt Lucy—”
“Charles, please listen. If we had another choice, we would take it. But we must find my granddaughter a suitable husband, one who is strong and powerful enough to protect her. Her position in life, the type of girl she is . . . ” She paused, her lips thinning into a distressed line.
“Yes?” Charles asked gently.
“Gillian is very vulnerable,” she said. “More than I like to admit, and certainly more than she will admit. For all her strength and courage, she has craved male affection and approval ever since her beloved stepfather passed away. I don’t need to tell you where such a vulnerability could lead.”
“I will not have my granddaughter sliding into the demimonde, either through her reckless behavior or because some wretched man takes advantage of her.”
Charles frowned. “Has anyone tried?”
Aunt Lucy nodded. “I have dealt with threats of that nature in the past, but I’m getting old. I will not be around forever.”
“I would never allow it to happen to Gillian,” Griffin said in a hard voice.
“The problem is that you would do such a splendid job of protecting her,” Aunt Lucy said, “that no man would have the nerve to come near her.”
“Well, the girl needs someone to look out for her,” Griffin said. “She’s too bloody reckless. It’s only a matter of time before she triggers a full-blown scandal that will sink her reputation for good.”
“Charles, if you don’t come to our aid, I don’t know what we’ll do,” Aunt Lucy said, sounding rather desperate.
He wanted to say no, but . . .
A Penley always does the right thing.
His father’s voice echoed in his head. Charles felt sure, however, that the old man had not envisioned this particular situation. Still, Aunt Lucy and even the mysterious Gillian were family.
“Perhaps you’d better tell me everything,” he said.
As Aunt Lucy talked, Charles experienced a growing consternation. To say that Miss Dryden was a catalogue of social disasters was a massive understatement. In addition to threatening the dancing master, she’d gone riding by herself in Green Park, strolled past White’s in the middle of the afternoon—again, by herself—and inadvertently insulted an ancient and very distinguished marquess at the one small party her family had dared take her to.
Apparently, that was just the beginning.
“For God’s sake, Aunt Lucy,” he broke in, “even I cannot groom a savage. What were you thinking to bring her here in the first place?”
Steele leaned forward, his gaze turning flat and cold. “Careful, Your Grace, or you’re likely to end up with my blade between your ribs.”
“Oh, please,” Charles said in a dismissive voice.
“I brought her to England to save her life,” Aunt Lucy said. “She may not be up to your exacting standards, Charles, but I could not let her die at the hands of ruthless brigands. That would surely have been her fate if we’d stayed in Sicily.”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “About those bandits. Why the devil—”
His aunt shook her head and came to her feet. Charles and Steele quickly rose in response.
“Forgive me for wasting your time, Your Grace,” she said with a resigned dignity. “I see now it was too much to ask of you. I only ask that you keep these matters private for Gillian’s sake.”
Mentally sighing, Charles took her hand. “No, Aunt, it is I who must ask your forgiveness. My manners indeed went begging, and I am sorry for it. Let us just say that I was surprised into forgetting myself.”
She eyed him, looking doubtful, troubled, and weary.
“But there’s one thing I still don’t understand,” he said. “Why is Miss Dryden so resistant to learning conventional behavior?”
His aunt shrugged. “She seems to equate conforming to acceptable standards with training a monkey to perform tricks. Pointless was how she described it.”
“There is nothing pointless about civilized behavior,” Charles said. “Or in treating our fellow creatures with appropriate dignity.”
God, that sounded priggish even for him. Steele’s derisive snort signaled he thought so too.
“I’ve told her that a thousand times,” Aunt Lucy said. “But only her stepfather could get her to see reason, I’m sorry to say. Gillian had a great regard for him, both as her adopted parent and as patriarch of the family.”
“How boringly traditional of her,” Griffin commented.
“Well, she was raised in Sicily,” Aunt Lucy replied. “They’re sticklers for that sort of thing. Which is another reason why I thought of you, Charles. You are indisputably the head of our family, as well as a duke. I’m hoping the combination will generate at least a modicum of compliance on Gillian’s part.”
As Charles looked into his aunt’s pleading gaze, he found it impossible to say no. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to meet her. See if she would be amenable to taking some, ah, guidance from me.”
“Good luck with that,” Steele said in a sardonic tone.
Aunt Lucy flashed Charles a relieved smile. “She’s really a very nice girl, despite her rough edges. I’m sure you’ll like her.”
Charles kept his considerable doubts to himself.
“Griffin, will you ring for the footman?” Aunt Lucy asked. “He can fetch Gillian.”
“I know exactly where she is,” Griffin said, striding to the door. When he pulled it open, a woman tumbled into the room, landing on her knees.
“Confound it,” she muttered. She hopped to her feet in a swift, contained movement and flicked the skirts of her gown back in place over her slim figure. She gazed directly at Charles with big, sherry-colored eyes, apparently not the least bit embarrassed by her outrageous entrance.
“So, you’re the one who’s going to tame the savage,” she said in a crisp voice that carried the hint of an exotic accent. “What fun for both of us.”