Tumbling down at the feet of the high and mighty Duke of Leverton was not how Gillian had planned their first meeting. Lately, however, most of her plans had displayed an irritating tendency to go awry.
Her grandmother glared at her. “I see you’ve been eavesdropping again. I do hope none of the servants saw you in such an inelegant position.”
“Parsons did,” Gillian said. “He looked appropriately appalled.”
Actually, the butler had simply looked resigned, evidently getting used to her.
“Really, my dear, I wish you would stop skulking about, listening in on people’s private conversations,” Grandmamma said. “It’s in such poor taste.”
“How else am I supposed to know what people are saying when I’m obviously the topic under discussion?” Gillian asked.
“Perhaps you might try asking them,” Leverton said in a deep, cultured voice perfectly calibrated with sarcasm.
Gillian crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a slow perusal. “I don’t recall asking for your opinion on the subject. Then again, I’m a savage, so what do I know?”
Irritation tightened his aristocratic features, but then a polite mask dropped in place. Gillian had to give him credit. She’d wager he was unused to young ladies falling at his feet and compounding the awkward situation by insulting him. Then again, perhaps he was used to women falling at his feet. He was certainly both rich and handsome enough to elicit that sort of swooning.
Insulting him, though? From what she’d heard, people went to extraordinary lengths to court his favor.
“Since you were listening at the door, Miss Dryden, you must know that I also apologized for my rude behavior,” the duke said.
“Not to me. Not that I care one blasted bit if you do one way or the other.”
Her grandmother let out a heavy sigh, and even Griffin shook his head. The duke, however, simply regarded her with a perfectly unruffled manner, as if she were some recently discovered species, only vaguely interesting. Gillian began to get quite a bad feeling that she’d finally met her match.
She’d been hearing for weeks how Leverton was the key to solving Gillian’s little problem, as her family called it. According to them, he was perfectly suited to guide her into society’s good graces, and perfectly capable of managing away even the most troublesome elements of her background.
He must be a bloody perfect miracle worker, if that was the case.
As she cautiously eyed him, she couldn’t help concluding that he did seem rather perfect in some respects. He was certainly prettier than she was, with thick, tawny-colored hair, striking blue eyes, and a face straight off a Greek statue. And he was certainly a good deal more stylish than she was, although that was true of almost anyone. But even she could appreciate the way his beautifully tailored coat showcased his broad shoulders, and how his breeches clung to his muscled legs with nary a wrinkle. As for his cravat, it was practically a work of art.
In fact, he was so damn perfect it made her stomach hurt. She’d been drawn in by perfection before, and it had almost ruined her.
“Stop trying to shock us, Gillian,” her grandmother said. “You know quite well it won’t work.”
“Au contraire, Lady Marbury,” Griffin said. “I find myself quite riven with horror.”
He flashed Gillian the conspiratorial smile that always made her feel someone truly did understand her. And, more important, Griffin didn’t find her wanting, unlike apparently everyone else in London. She couldn’t wait to shake the dirt of England from her boots and return to Sicily—the sooner, the better.
“Miss Dryden is quite right,” Leverton said.
Gillian frowned. “I am? About what, exactly?”
He slowly crossed the room to her. He didn’t prowl, precisely, but something in the way he moved made her think of . . . a wolf, perhaps. Slipping silently through the night as he hunted in silence.
An exceedingly clever wolf, she guessed. One with very sharp teeth well suited for ripping apart a person’s carefully ordered life.
Leverton’s height forced her to tilt back her head to meet his gaze, and she found herself staring into eyes a beautiful shade of cobalt. She had to admit they were really quite amazing.
“Please believe me, Miss Dryden, when I say I meant no insult. I was merely surprised by a few details regarding your situation. It caused me to forget my manners.” A glint of amusement lurked in his gaze.
Her stomach twisted at the notion that he might be laughing at her. But when he smiled, her stomach seemed to untwist and start dancing with butterflies.
“Come, my dear girl,” he said in his beautifully cultured voice. “I beg you to forgive me before I’m compelled to do something drastic—like throw myself at your feet. That would be embarrassing for both of us.”
“Bloody coxcomb,” Griffin muttered.
Leverton ignored the aside, keeping his attention on Gillian. Her heart began to thump and heat crawled up her neck. “Oh, very well,” she grumbled. “I forgive you.”
“You are most gracious,” Leverton said. “Now, perhaps we can start over and leave all this awkwardness behind.”
“What a splendid idea,” Grandmamma said. “Your Grace, my granddaughter, Miss Gillian Dryden.”
The duke bowed as if she hadn’t just tumbled through the door, and as if they hadn’t just spent the last few minutes insulting each other.
“Gillian, I have the pleasure of introducing you to the Duke of Leverton,” Grandmamma added.
“Good Lord. I know who he is,” Gillian replied, not hiding her exasperation.
“Then make him a curtsey, my dear. A proper one.”
Repressing the urge to roll her eyes—one curtsey was as good as another, as far as she was concerned—Gillian dipped down and quickly came up.
Leverton’s eyebrows ticked up. On him, she rather expected it was the equivalent of a horrified gasp.
Well, nobody ever said she was graceful, at least when it came to that sort of silliness.
“Hmm,” he said. “We’ll have to work on that.”
“It’s all nonsense, if you ask me,” Gillian said. “All this bowing and scraping like a peasant before his master. Perhaps you’d like me to polish your boots while I’m at it.”
His disapproving gaze made her blink, and she almost took a step back. This was a man who did not like being crossed.
“Gillian Dryden, you will cease acting like heathen,” her grandmother rapped out.
“I had no idea you had revolutionary tendencies, Miss Dryden,” the duke said. “How very interesting. And no, I would not like you to polish my boots. My valet would not approve.”
Now he sounded bored. And if he was bored, he would be more likely to go away and leave her alone. Splendid.
Still, she couldn’t help feeling irked by his dismissive tone and demeanor. The Duke of Leverton was certainly a snob and probably a fop. She didn’t know which was worse.
“Why would you think I have revolutionary tendencies, sir?” she added in a sugary-sweet voice. “Is it because I think I’m as good as anyone else, despite my unfortunate social status?”
Gillian braced herself for the expected put-down. She’d grown used to being labeled a prince’s by-blow, or worse. It was best to simply accept it and then do her best to avoid anyone who looked down on her because of her parentage. She’d learned that hard lesson a long time ago.
The duke studied her for a few moments before replying. “Of course you are.”
“Of course I am what?” she asked.
“As good as anyone else. Any sensible person must think so,” he said.
“That eliminates most of the ton,” Griffin said.
Leverton seemed to weigh her brother’s droll comment. “I believe your assessment is too pessimistic, Steele. Shall we say, perhaps fifty percent?”
The exchange was so silly that Gillian had to laugh. Leverton’s eyebrows ticked up again, but not, she thought, with disapproval. Then he flashed her another dazzling smile that made her feel like the floor had just tipped sideways.
“That’s much better,” he said.
She shook her head, exasperated. “I don’t understand any of this.”
“Never mind.” Leverton glanced at Gillian’s grandmother. “Madam, would you be averse to my asking Miss Dryden a few questions? To get the lay of the land, as it were.”
“You mean to figure out how hopeless I truly am,” Gillian said.
Griffin took her arm and steered her to sit with her grandmother. “Might as well get it over with, old girl.”
“Easy enough for you to say,” she retorted. “No one cares if you’re a royal by-blow. No one ever cares about that sort of thing when it comes to men.”
“Not exactly true,” Griffin said. “I had my problems, although I admit the situation is trickier for you than it was for me.”
“But not insurmountable, as I think we all agreed a few minutes ago,” the duke said, resuming his seat.
“I was not in the room at the time of that discussion,” Gillian said.
“But you were listening in,” the duke responded. “I will, therefore, assume you to be in agreement with the rest of us.”
Confound it. The man was all but unflappable. “That remains to be seen.”
His glance shifted to her grandmother before returning to her. “Miss Dryden, am I to understand that you do not wish to be accepted into polite society? Surely that cannot be correct.”
“Of course not.” Grandmamma pinned Gillian with a look that all but dared her to disagree. “Is it, my child?”
Drat. She was caught in her own trap.
Her mother and grandmother had already made it clear that her introduction into British society was happening regardless of her wishes. Refusing to cooperate would hardly achieve the desired outcome—her family’s agreement to let her return to Sicily. They genuinely believed she could make a go of things here in England, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
They also believed that to send her home was tantamount to a death sentence. Gillian didn’t agree. Things might be a little sticky for a while, but she’d find a way to manage the situation. She always did.
“Of course I wish to be accepted into polite society.” She adopted an earnest expression as she gazed at the duke. “Is that not the wish of any right-thinking English girl?”
“I’m not interested in other girls,” he said bluntly. “I want to know what you think about it.”
Gillian waved an airy hand. “No need to worry about me, Your Grace. I am all compliance.”
Her grandmother made a small, choking sound.
“I’m thrilled to hear it,” Leverton replied. “Then shall we proceed?”
“I understand that you speak several languages, and your English is excellent. That will certainly help smooth the way.”
Gillian’s brief episode of compliance evaporated. “I’m not a moron, sir. In fact, I suspect I’m much better educated than the average English girl. From what I can see, most of them are complete ninnies.”
“Gillian,” her grandmother warned.
“Sorry, Grandmamma, but you know it’s true. Ten minutes with the likes of Lady Allister’s daughters is enough to prove that point.”
Lady Allister was an old friend of Gillian’s mother’s, and Gillian had been forced to endure two gruesome outings with her ladyship and her daughters. The girls had twittered endlessly like a pair of demented sparrows, interested in nothing but clothes, men, and the latest gossip.
They’d also made little effort to conceal the fact that they found Gillian beneath their notice, treating her with disdain whenever Mamma and Lady Allister weren’t looking. It had taken every ounce of discipline she possessed not to box their ears. Only her mother’s anxious desire for Gillian to make friends had held her back.
“I take your point about Lady Allister’s unfortunate daughters,” Leverton said. “They are a remarkably dreary pair of girls.”
“Oh, um, thank you,” Gillian said, momentarily flummoxed. “I did try to give them the benefit of the doubt, as I told Grandmamma.”
“You called them twits and told them to stop screeching like banshees,” her grandmother said. “In public.”
“Well, they kicked up the most ridiculous fuss,” Gillian said, “simply because a spider crawled up the younger Miss Allister’s sleeve. You’d think the French had launched a full-scale invasion of London.”
“You didn’t help matters by taking off your hat and striking her with it,” her grandmother replied.
“I was simply trying to knock the blasted spider off her dress. For all the good it did me,” Gillian muttered.
“So, that’s what happened,” Griffin said.
“Oh, dear,” sighed Grandmamma. “You heard about that incident?”
“I expect half of London did,” Griffin said with a grin. “It isn’t every day that young ladies attack each other in Gunter’s.”
“I did not attack her,” Gillian protested. “I was trying to help her. It’s not my fault she toppled over and sent the table flying.”
All the ices and drinks had been dumped onto Lady Allister’s ample lap. The resulting shrieks had been so loud that Gillian’s ears had rung for hours.
“Since you didn’t hear about the incident, Charles, perhaps it’s not as bad as we initially thought,” Grandmamma said, looking hopeful.
The duke had been staring at Gillian with what looked like horrified fascination, but he quickly pulled himself together. “I only returned to London a few days ago. I’ve been locked up in my offices since and am not yet privy to the latest gossip.”
“Oh, dear,” her grandmother said with a sigh.
The duke gave her a sympathetic grimace. “Never mind, Aunt Lucy. Most everyone agrees with Miss Dryden’s trenchant assessment of the Allister girls, so I don’t think the damage will be acute.” He shot Gillian a stern look. “As long as you refrain from similar incidents.”
“I promise,” she said in a pious voice. Unfortunately, her vow was undercut by the look exchanged by Griffin and her grandmother.
“You might as well tell me,” the duke said in a resigned voice.
“There was that incident in Hyde Park the other day, when she went for an early morning ride,” Grandmamma said.
“Not by herself, I hope,” the duke said.
“Of course not,” Gillian said. “I had a groom with me.” Her grandmother had seen to that. The servants barely let Gillian out of their sight.
“Then what was the problem?”
“She wore breeches,” her grandmother said.
Leverton blinked slowly.
“It’s the only way I can ride astride. I hate sidesaddle,” Gillian explained.
“Did anyone see you?” Leverton asked.
“Not so as to recognize me,” she said. “So I don’t see what the problem is.”
His gaze went cool again. “I’m sure you know exactly what the problem is, so please don’t insult my intelligence, Miss Dryden.”
She felt her cheeks flush. Of course she’d known what the problem was, which was why she’d gone out riding early in the morning. She truly didn’t want to embarrass her family, but that didn’t mean she didn’t chafe against the restrictions placed on her—or circumvent them, on occasion.
Griffin stirred. “Speaking of insults, I’d advise you to address my sister in a more respectful tone. An offense to her is an offense to me. Believe me, you don’t want that.”
Leverton didn’t seem the slightest bit discomposed by her brother’s threat. In fact, the two men commenced staring at each other in a way that raised the hairs on the back of Gillian’s neck.
“It’s fine,” she hastily said. “I’m sure the duke didn’t mean to insult me. Did you, sir?”
He held Griffin’s gaze for a moment longer, then looked at her. “Of course not, Miss Dryden.”
“Good, then let’s continue.” The sooner this appalling interview came to an end, the better.
“Lady Marbury has given me a fairly good understanding of your education,” he said. “It sounded, however, as if you’ve lacked sufficient tutoring in the traditional female accomplishments.”
“You mean like drawing and needlework? Sorry, I never saw the point of it.”
She could stitch a shirt and cook a stew with the best of them. Those were useful tasks that served a purpose. But wasting one’s time on producing decorative samplers or boring landscapes? She’d always had better things to do with her time.
“And what about music? Do you play an instrument or sing, or did you not see the point in those activities, either?”
Gillian liked music, especially opera, but she’d never had the patience to learn how to play. And the less said about her singing voice, the better. She gave a shrug.
“My dear girl,” Leverton said, sounding exasperated. “Do you have no hobbies or leisurely pastimes at all?”
“Actually, yes,” she said. “I’m quite good at hunting bandits.”
She could barely hear the duke grinding his teeth over her grandmother’s groan.