Do you follow me on facebook? If so, you might want to pop on over there and check out my latest contest. I’m giving away two Advanced Reading Copies of MY FAIR PRINCESS, book 1 in my upcoming Improper Princesses Series. Just click here to enter the contest if you’d like the chance to read the book months before anyone else!
MY FAIR PRINCESS, the first book in the Improper Princesses Series, will hit the shelves on August 30th. As promised, I’m releasing exclusive chapter length excerpts every month (you can read the first two chapters here). And here’s something else you might be interested in: if you pre-order MY FAIR PRINCESS, you’ll receive a bonus short story featuring the heroes and heroines from my Renegade Royals Series. Would you like to find out what happened to Griffin and Justine Steele from CONFESSIONS OF A ROYAL BRIDEGROOM, or learn more about Sir Dominic Hunter and his long-lost love, Chloe Steele? Well, here’s your chance! Just click here to get all the details about this special pre-order bonus story.
And now, onto the excerpt: chapter three, MY FAIR PRINCESS:
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.”
Have a great weekend, and happy reading!
MY FAIR PRINCESS, the first book in The Improper Princesses Series, will be out on August 30th. From now until August, I’ll be posting chapter-by-chapter excerpts at least once a month, right up to a few weeks before release day. That means you’ll be able to read a good chunk of the book before it even hits the shelves!
Today’s excerpt is Chapter 2. If you haven’t already read Chapter 1, just click here.
So, without further ado, please meet my hero, the Duke of Leverton.
Charles Valentine Penley, Sixth Duke of Leverton, hastily stepped off the curb and into the street, narrowly avoiding collision with three little boys barreling down the pavement on their way home from the park. As much as he could appreciate their high spirits, they were covered in mud, and one generally didn’t make social calls looking as if one had been rolling around in the stables.
“Slow down, you little hellions,” Kates yelled from the seat of the curricle. “You almost knocked His Grace flat on his arse.” Kates, an excellent groom, occasionally forgot himself as his rather disreputable origins in the London stews bubbled to the surface.
“No need to shout,” Charles said.
“They might have spooked the horses. And you all but scared the wits out of the poor things, jumpin’ off the curb like that,” Kates added in an accusatory tone. In his world, nothing was worse than ruffling the high-strung nerves of the animals under his care.
“How dreadful of me,” Charles said. “Do you think I should apologize to them?”
When Kates was upset, his resemblance to a sad-eyed basset hound verged on the remarkable. “Now, no need to make a jest out of it, Yer Grace. You know this pair hates goin’ out in all this wind. It’s well-nigh a gale, I tell you.”
As if to underscore the point, a stiff breeze swirled down Brook Street, kicking up both dust and the skirts of the three nursemaids hurrying after their ill-behaved charges. Two were young and pretty and smiled flirtatiously as they passed, murmuring apologies for any inconvenience the boys might have caused.
Charles gave them a polite smile before turning back to Kates. “Very well, you may return to Grosvenor Square now. I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying, and God forbid I should keep the horses out in a hurricane.”
It was merely a blustery day, an unseasonably cool one in an unseasonably cool spring. Still, it felt good to be outside. Only recently returned from his estate in Lincolnshire, Charles had spent the last several days buried up to his eyeballs in paperwork in his parliamentary offices. He already missed the long rides, the crisp, clean air, and the quieter, more ordered way of life in the country.
Kates cast an assessing glance at the slate-gray sky. “Are you sure, sir? It looks as if it might be comin’ on rain. You don’t want to be gettin’ them boots wet. Jobbins will be pitchin’ a fit if you do.”
“Let me explain something, Kates. I’m the duke, and Jobbins is the valet. I pay his wages. I do not pay him to pitch a fit.”
The groom eyed him uncertainly. “If you say so, Yer Grace.”
The staff at Leverton House lived in terror of Jobbins, who’d been around since Noah’s Flood and who had a knack for reducing even the butler to grudging compliance. Jobbins had acquired his intimidating manner from his previous master, the Fifth Duke of Leverton. Unlike that duke, however, Jobbins had a heart. Charles had always found it rather amazing that his valet treated him with more genuine affection than his own father had.
Charles took pity on his clearly worried groom. “Would you rather the horses get wet or me?”
Kates darted another alarmed glance at the sky, then at the patiently waiting pair. “Right you are, sir. I’d best be getting these two safely home.”
While Kates set a brisk trot down Brook Street, Charles turned to mount the steps of the building in front of him. The handsome brick and stucco townhouse had belonged to the Marburys for as long as he could recall, although it had been rented until Lady Marbury and her family’s recent return to England after many years abroad.
They were his family too, as he had to remind himself. He and Lady Marbury were cousins a few times removed on his father’s side, and Lady Marbury’s daughter, now the widow of an Italian aristocrat, had been married at a young age to one of Charles’s maternal uncles. That union had only lasted a few years before his uncle died of a heart attack in the bed of a notorious courtesan. The young dowager duchess had then gone on to scandalous escapades of her own—so scandalous, in fact, that the Marburys had taken their errant daughter and decamped to the Continent, settling first in Naples and then Sicily.
They had remained there for well over twenty years, even after the death of Lord Marbury. Why they had returned now—and why Charles had been so peremptorily summoned by Lady Marbury—was a mystery that instilled a certain caution. But they were family, and Penleys always put family first. That lesson had been drummed into his head from an early age and wasn’t one he was likely to forget.
A liveried footman ushered him in with a quiet greeting, taking his hat and gloves. A moment later, an extremely correct butler appeared from the back of the house to escort him to Lady Marbury. The surroundings exuded an atmosphere of quiet, familiar elegance. Charles had visited the house often as a child, and he could almost imagine nothing had changed since those long-ago days, before the family’s ignominious fall from grace and social exile from England.
The butler led him to the back of the house, to what he vaguely recalled was Lady Marbury’s private sitting room. That was interesting, since he’d been expecting to make a formal call. After all, the last time he’d seen her had been when he was a callow youth of eighteen, on the Grand Tour with his tutor. Much had changed since then, including the fact that Charles was now Duke of Leverton.
After a quick tap on the door, the butler announced him.
Charles entered the small room and came to a halt, feeling as if he’d stepped back in time. The furnishings hadn’t altered a jot. Even the yellow swags draping the windows looked the same, albeit rather faded. He remembered the ornate French bracket clock on the mantel and the portrait of a previous earl of Marbury, painted by Romney, hung over the fireplace.
It made him feel like a child again, not a sensation he relished.
A soft laugh jerked him out of his reverie. “It’s uncanny, isn’t it? I almost felt like a young woman when I walked into this room. We have been away for much too long.”
Lady Marbury stood there, elegantly attired in a style more French than English. Her clear blue eyes regarded him with amusement, and a welcoming smile lit up her handsome, barely lined face. Only the white hair under a dainty lace cap gave testament to her age of more than seventy years. Her life had not always been easy, but she had certainly retained much of her beauty and quiet grace.
Her smile slid into a grin. “Charles, it’s very good to see you again. I do hope, however, that my appearance has not struck you dumb. Have I aged so much that you no longer recognize me?”
“Please forgive me,” he said, taking her hand. “I truly was struck dumb by your youthful appearance. You’ve hardly aged a day.”
“What nonsense.” She stretched up and pressed a fleeting kiss to his cheek. “You too have changed a great deal. You’ve grown into a handsome man, which is hardly surprising since you were a good-looking and charming boy.”
He mentally blinked at her affectionate compliment. The Lady Marbury he remembered was not a woman prone to such high praise and flattery.
And no one would have ever labeled him charming—awkward and tongue-tied was more like it. True, he’d acquired social polish over the years. But since Lady Marbury wouldn’t know that, her words made him even more suspicious. He knew her to be a brilliant woman and the true force behind her husband’s political career before their exile to Sicily. Lady Marbury had always been the canny one, a fact he must not forget.
“Please sit, Charles,” she said, waving him to an armchair covered in gently faded but still beautiful embroidery. She took the claw-footed settee across from him. “I hope you’ll forgive our rather shabby appearance. We’ve not yet had the chance to redecorate.”
“There’s nothing shabby about it, my lady. It’s charming and very . . . homey.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” she said in a dry tone that sounded more like her. “And, please, there is no need for such formality between us. If you keep referring to me as ‘my lady,’ I shall be obliged to refer to you as Your Grace. You used to call me Aunt Lucy, after all.”
He refrained from expressing polite incredulity. Charles had sometimes called her Aunt Lucy when he was a boy, more to annoy his elders than anything else. Neither the Marburys nor his parents had encouraged such informalities.
“As you wish, Aunt Lucy,” he said. “Now, how may I be of assistance to you?”
Her eyebrows lifted a tick. “Why would you assume I’m in want of assistance? Perhaps I simply wished to see one of my nearest relations after so many years away from home.”
“Are we such near relations? I will have to check the family Bible.” He pretended to ruminate for a few seconds. “Although I suppose you must be referring to your daughter’s marriage to my uncle which, as I recall, was extremely short-lived.”
She blinked, but then her eyes warmed with laughter. “How wretched of you to point that out. Are you suggesting that I’m doing it rather too brown?”
He gave her a half smile. No point in letting Aunt Lucy think she could push him about for her own purposes. Once, he had been very easy to manipulate, but those days were long gone.
“Perish the thought,” he said. “Your missive, however, seemed to carry a rather urgent undertone. Forgive me if I assumed incorrectly.”
Warmth lingered in her gaze. “You would be wrong, you know. I am happy to see you. But you are correct—I do need your help. I was simply trying to figure out the most successful line of approach.”
“Directly, I would think. There’s no need to beat around the bush with me.”
“I’d forgotten how blunt and honest you were as a boy.”
“I believe you mean clumsy.”
“No, that was your father’s assessment, not mine. I did not agree with him.”
He nodded his thanks, not wishing to encourage that discussion. Charles was well aware of his late father’s opinion of him.
“Besides,” she continued, “I understand that you are now a paragon of courtesy and good taste. Peerless Penley, is that not what people call you?”
They did, and he hated it. But like many things in life, he’d learned to turn it to his advantage. “Also Perfect Penley and Impeccable Penley. You have your pick.”
She nodded. “Yes, I’ve heard those as well. Your reputation as a leader of the ton is quite formidable.”
Now they were getting to it. “And is that why you seek my help?”
“Let me ring for tea before I explain.”
He held up a hand. “Perhaps we can dispense with the social formalities just this once, despite my fearsome reputation. Please, Aunt, speak freely.” As much as he’d learned to value the social niceties, he sometimes found them irksome and time-consuming.
She eyed him dubiously. “Very well. Perhaps it’s best if we have tea once my granddaughter joins us.”
Surely she didn’t mean . . . “Are you referring to Miss Gillian Dryden?”
“I am.” Her answer held a touch of defiance.
“You brought her back to England with you?” He couldn’t keep an incredulous note from his voice.
His aunt starched up, looking every bit the imperious aristocrat he remembered. “Is there some reason why my daughter and I shouldn’t bring Gillian home?”
Besides the fact that she was the bastard daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the Prince Regent’s brother? But, of course, he would never be so rude as to state it so bluntly. “Forgive me. I simply assumed her to be married and living in Sicily. She’s . . . twenty-two by now?”
“Twenty-one. And I think you can guess why she’s not married.”
“I’m sorry. I had no desire to offend.” He offered her a wry smile. “Clearly, my reputation is not so well deserved after all.”
She drummed her fingers on her knee. “That is certainly not what I was given to understand.”
Now they were going around in circles, an even bigger waste of time. “Is it Miss Dryden you wish to speak to me about?”
She let out a sigh that sounded both weary and worried. “Forgive me for biting off your head. It’s been a long two months.”
“I have no doubt your travels were taxing. Nor could it have been easy to return home after so many years abroad.” Although decades had passed since the Marburys left England, the scandal that had forced them away was still not forgotten.
Aunt Lucy’s gaze softened. “Yes, England is still home, for all that. Despite the difficulties, I am happy to be back here in my declining years.”
“Good Lord. I had no idea you were verging on such decrepitude.”
She let out a reluctant laugh. “That, my dear Charles, was anything but polite.”
“No, but I needed to point out that you are anything but in decline. Your remarks suggest, however, that not everyone is happy that you’ve returned. Meaning your granddaughter, I presume?”
“How disgustingly perceptive of you. I shall have to remember that. Yes, Gillian is not taking the transition well. And I won’t pretend that we’re not having problems because of that.”
“Because of her, er, status, or because she’s not terribly familiar with English manners and customs?”
Aunt Lucy sighed again, but this time it was the sound of exasperation. “Both, although her behavior is the more vexing of the two at this point.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that possible.” In a woman of the upper classes, the stain of illegitimacy was an almost insurmountable obstacle.
“Anything is possible with Gillian,” she said, shaking her head. “What do you remember of her?
He thought back to his visit to Sicily over twelve years ago. Although he’d stayed with the Marburys at their charming villa on the outskirts of Palermo, he’d seen Gillian Dryden only a few times. She’d only been nine at the time, so there would have been little reason for her to be out in company. He’d also had the sense that Lord Marbury had objected to his granddaughter’s presence in their household. As a result, she’d been kept out of sight as much as possible.
“I remember that she was very quiet, like a little ghost hovering around the edges of the room.”
For a moment, Aunt Lucy looked stricken. “That is a very apt description. My husband did not approve of Gillian’s presence, although I’m happy to say that her stepfather was a great deal more accepting.”
Charles nodded. “Lady Julia married a member of the Italian nobility, as I recall. Count Paterini, I believe?”
“Yes. He was a wonderful man who treated Gillian like his own daughter. We were all devastated when he died so tragically. It was as hard on Gillian as it was on her mother.”
“I’m sorry to hear of your loss,” he said.
“Thank you. But I suppose there is little to be served by rehashing our family’s sad history. I should get to the point instead of wasting your valuable time.”
“I cannot help you until you do,” he said with a smile.
“Very well, then. I would like your help in teaching my granddaughter how to be a proper English lady instead of a wild, impetuous baggage who offends every person she meets.”
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Thanks for taking the time to read my excerpt!