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?”