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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My Fair Princess Excerpt!!

My Fair Princess 2

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.



May 1816

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.”


MY FAIR PRINCESS is currently available for pre-order for only $4.99 in digital and $5.99 in print. You can find more info and buy links on the Book Page.

AND here’s a special, pre-order bonus! If you pre-order your copy of MY FAIR PRINCESS, you’ll receive a free short story featuring all my Renegade Royals and their wives. Curious to find out what happened to Griffin Steele and Justine Brightmore from CONFESSIONS OF A ROYAL BRIDEGROOM, for instance? Well, here’s your chance! Just click here for more info on the Renegade Royals bonus short story and how to sign up to receive it.

Thanks for taking the time to read my excerpt!

Confessions of a Royal Bridegroom!

Confessions of A Ro#14B6A95

The next book in my Renegade Royals series will be out on April 1, and it features my favorite hero–Griffin Steele, reprobate, rake, and all around sexy guy.  Here’s a snippet from the first meet with Justine Brightmore, my heroine, to whet your appetite:

Griffin lounged in his chair, stretching his legs in front of him.  To the casual observer, he must surely have looked relaxed to the point of falling asleep.  If only that were true.  Frustration jabbed at his nerves and buzzed in his brain, and it took all his willpower to refrain from stalking about the room and growling his frustration at Dominic for refusing to help in any meaningful way.

Like taking the blasted baby off his hands. 

He had to admit that some of his bad temper resulted from a restless night.  Not that Griffin needed much sleep, but when he did, he tended to sleep hard and well.  Not so with a colicky baby in the house who wailed his poor little head off for hours.  Add in Rose clomping back and forth between the kitchen and her bedroom and no one in the house had slept more than a wink.  Griffin would happily stay awake all night if a beautiful, naked woman and a good bottle of cognac kept him company, but such had not been the case.

Beneath the fatigue and frustration ran another note, one that had more to do with the prim little tabby sitting across from him, sipping her tea with genteel grace.  A heightened awareness of her every move thrummed through his veins in defiance of all rational understanding.  Griffin did not have a spinster fetish, nor did he care for innocent and virginal maidens.  Justine Brightmore was both, and that unfortunate combination was exacerbated by the fact that she clearly disapproved of him as he thoroughly as he did her. 

You can read a longer excerpt from Confessions of a Royal Bridegroom on my Books Page.  And stay turned for more snippets and ARC giveaways during the month of March!

ARC Giveaway of Season For Surrender!

I’m doing something really fun today – an excerpt and ARC exchange with my fellow Kensington Zebra author, Theresa Romain.  You see, we both write Regency-set historical romance and we both have Christmas-themed books coming out on Oct. 2.  So we thought it would be fun to post some exclusive excerpts and also give our readers a chance to win Advanced Reader Copies of our books.  Just think, you have the chance to read either His Mistletoe Bride or Season for Surrender two months before anyone else!

And now for the good stuff – an excerpt from Theresa’s truly lovely book, Season for Surrender.

When Alexander, Lord Xavier, hosts a country house party, he never expects his own reputation will come into question. For years, the ton has known him as a scandalous rogue, always up for a naughty wager. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well. His cousin forces a wager that Xavier can’t get a proper bluestocking, Louisa, to stay for the length of the house party. Louisa has every reason to hate Xavier, but she’s intrigued by his home’s fine library—and by the chance to mix with the impolite sector of the polite world.

In this early scene, Louisa has begun to suspect that her host’s reputation is a façade. What does it hide, though? When he finds her in the library, she’s willing to forge a truce so she can find out more.

*          *          *

 “Are you suggesting I’ve been difficult?” Again, the expression of elaborate shock.

Louisa mirrored his posture, folding her arms. “Come now, my lord. I’ve promised not to be shrewish with you, so you can’t expect me to pick up that thread of conversation. I’m only asking you to treat me with the same respect you would one of your male associates.”

Gray eyes met hers. “They rarely wear such fetching frocks, Miss Oliver. I would find the pretense difficult to sustain.”

She shook her head. “Honesty, please, my lord. You don’t have to say things like fetching to me. I’m not going to leave if I’m not complimented every two minutes. In fact, I’d much rather receive no compliment at all than an insincere one.”

She gestured at her patterned muslin day dress. “This is clothing, my lord. It covers my body. It doesn’t have anything to do with my real self.”

When he studied her without replying, she made an impatient gesture and laid the play on the nearest shelf. “Excuse me, please.”

She crouched again, intending to continue her survey of this long-neglected collection of books. Determined to ignore the tall man lurking behind her, she scrutinized the bindings for some clue as to where to begin. The old, cord-banded spines on this shelf were not marked. Anything could be here, waiting to surprise her.

Xavier loomed over her, and the hair at the nape of her neck stirred in the eddy of his slight movements. Then he sank to the floor, leaning against the very shelf she was looking at, and stretched out his long legs.

“You’re wrong, Miss Oliver. When you choose your clothing, you do reveal something about yourself.”

He looked at her aslant. “Your gown is simple, yet it follows fashion. This shows that you care about practicality but do not wish to do yourself a disservice by appearing a frump. In the same way, your hair is coiled back from your face, yet its twists have been carefully arranged. In your every choice, you balance the demands of the world with the demands of your own self.”

Louisa sank from her crouch to a seat on the floor, an arm’s length away. “Oh.” She stopped; shook her head. “Thank you?”

She smoothed her skirt, wondering at all he’d read into the floral-patterned fabric. One hand reached up to touch her hair, as though it had altered when spoken of. “I’d never thought of it all that way. You surprise me, my lord.”

He lifted his chin and looked at her directly. “Likewise. Please, Miss Oliver, don’t assume that every compliment I give is insincere. I might candy my words, but they do have real substance.” His expression turned wry. “Well, sometimes they do.”

A knot of something tense between her shoulders began to relax. “That’s more than many in the ton could say. Certainly more than most would admit.”

She leaned against the shelf next to him, feeling an odd tug of companionship. It came from the informality, maybe; sitting not on furniture with her back straight as a yardstick, but on the floor, her legs folded up like a child’s.

There was nothing improper, exactly, about sitting like this, yet she felt as though she’d left propriety behind her at long last. She sat close enough to the infamous Lord Xavier to breathe in his clean scents of starch and spice; close enough to judge the span of his biceps beneath his coat. Would her two hands meet around it? She felt an almost irresistible urge to try, to wrap her fingers around some part of him and clutch this moment close.

Alexander Edgware, Lord Xavier, has quite a reputation—for daring, wagering, and wickedness in all its delightful forms. But the wager before him is hardly his preferred sport: Xavier must persuade a proper young lady to attend his famously naughty Christmas house party—and stay the full, ruinous two weeks. Worse, the lady is Louisa Oliver, a doe-eyed bookworm Xavier finds quite charming. Yet to refuse the challenge is impossible—he will simply have to appoint himself Miss Oliver’s protector…

Louisa knows her chance for a husband has passed. But she has no desire to retire into spinsterhood without enjoying a few grand adventures first. When Lord Xavier’s invitation arrives, Louisa is more intrigued than insulted. And once inside the rogues’ gallery, she just may have a thing or two to teach her gentlemen friends about daring…

Pre-order: amazonbarnes & noble • book depositorybooks-a-millionchapters indigo indiebound • powell’s

Pre-order e-book: kindlenook

Vanessa, here.  Didn’t that excerpt whet your appetite?  I had the pleasure of reading Season for Surrender a few weeks ago and I just loved it.  It’s witty and warm, with a wonderful hero and a smart and appealing heroine.  Theresa is a very talented writer and the person who wins this ARC will be very lucky!  So, for a chance to win the ARC Season for Surrender, just leave me a comment about something you really look forward to during the holiday season.  Yeah, it’s the middle of summer, but let’s spread a little holiday cheer a few months early!

The ARC contest on my blog will be open until August 8.  And don’t forget to check out Theresa’s blog and her website for the excerpt from my book, His Mistletoe Bride, and for a chance to win the ARC!


Excerpt Monday

No featured authors this week, although I do have  another great line-up of guests and giveaways coming up in July.  So this week on the blog I’ll be doing something a bit different.  I’ll be posting some excerpts from my new contemporary romance, Hardball, co-authored with my husband under our pen name of V.K. Sykes.  Although obviously not historical romances, I can assure you that my contemporary romances as just as fun and sexy as my historicals!

Here’s the blurb for Hardball:

After years of hard work and keeping her nose firmly to the grindstone, Dr. Holly Bell has finally achieved her dream:  a position as a pediatric surgeon at a prestigious teaching hospital.  Children’s lives rest in her skilled hands.  That means total dedication to her work and her patients without letting anything or anyone get in the way.  And a hot affair with a superstar athlete is most definitely getting in Holly’s way.

Nate Carter, star pitcher for the Philadelphia Patriots, has the world in the palm of his baseball glove.  He’s at the height of his game, a west coast team is about to lure him with even greater riches, and the most gorgeous women in town are in full pursuit.  Nate has everything he wants, or at least he thinks he does, until he meets the beautiful and brainy Dr. Holly Bell.  He’s totally up for a hot affair, and Holly turns out to be the hottest.

But will Holly be willing to play his game?  When the lovely doctor starts changing the rules, Nate realizes he just might be playing for keeps.

And here’s the excerpt, when Nate meets Holly for the first time:

Nate entered the room.  Two steps inside, he stopped short, brushing up against a woman in a white lab coat.  She must have been standing at the foot of the bed, fully hidden by the door.

The woman took a small step backward, clearly startled by the brief physical contact.  As their eyes met, Nate felt all the air sucked from his lungs in one whoosh.

Sweet Mother of God.

He had to pull in a deep breath.  What a babe.

The woman’s brow creased.  “I’m Dr. Bell.  Can I help you?”

He couldn’t stop his gaze from quickly traveling the full length of her body, from her face to her ankles and all the way back again.  Though not nearly as tall as he was, this doctor was one seriously long drink of a woman.  Close to six feet, he reckoned.  Her unbuttoned lab coat revealed a lean but curvy figure, and long, elegant legs.  She had a naturally beautiful face, too, with big, hazel eyes, a full, sexy mouth, and a peaches and cream complexion.  Still, he suspected she tended to hide her light under a bushel.  She wore no makeup that he could see, and her auburn hair was pulled back into a ponytail.  Glasses were perched on the end of her nose, secured by a fine gold chain around her neck.  They added to her unadorned, resolutely professional look.

The doctor extended a slender hand.  Her fine eyebrows arched as she waited for him to find his voice.

Her outstretched hand finally registered in his brain and jolted him into action. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, “I was a little surprised for a moment.  You were hidden by the door.”

He took her hand and held it a few seconds.  It was long and fine-boned, but her firm grip told him it was strong, too.  The kind of hand he’d like to have doing surgery on him.  In fact, he mused, he wouldn’t mind that hand doing all sorts of things to his body.

He introduced himself.  “I’m Nate Carter.  I come around whenever I can to visit with the kids.”

She still looked puzzled.  It dawned on him that she had absolutely no idea who he was.  It didn’t bother him, though.  Actually, it felt like a nice change of pace from the constant fan recognition.

“I’m a pitcher with the Patriots,” he said.  “You know.  Baseball.”

Her mouth relaxed into a half-smile. “Oh, I see,” she replied.  “You’re one of our celebrity visitors.”  Her crisp tone told him she was far from awed by his presence.  Looking down at the little girl, she said, “Mr. Carter, this is Morgan McDaniel.”

Morgan shyly put her little hand in his big one.

“Dr. Holly, I know who Nate Carter is,” she said in a whispery voice.  “He’s the Patriots’ best pitcher.  Everybody knows that.”

Dr. Bell seemed to hold back a smile as Morgan skewered her.  “I don’t think I’ve told you yet how new I am to the city, Morgan,” she said, her serious voice at odds with the amusement in her eyes.  “If I’d been here for more than just a few weeks, I’m sure I would have recognized a man as famous as Mr. Carter.”

Nate smothered a chuckle.  What a perfect response.  She validated what the little girl had said, and made him feel good at the same time.

“That’s why I didn’t recognize you, either,” he said.  “I’ve met most of the doctors here over the past few years, and I know I would have remembered if I’d ever seen you before.”  He made no attempt to keep the appreciation out of his voice.

“Well, then, I suppose we might run into each other again.”  Her smile was hesitant but intriguing.  “Since you’re a regular visitor here.”

“You bet,” he said.

As if he didn’t already have enough motivation to keep doing this“Doctor Bell,” he continued, wanting to keep the conversation going, “do you mind my asking where you’re from?  I detect a bit of a southern accent.”

She sighed, her expression conveying rueful resignation.  “You’re probably hearing the north Florida in my voice.  I grew up in Jacksonville.  But for the last nine years I’ve been studying and working at the University of Virginia.”

“You’re from Jacksonville?  No kidding?  I’ve got a condo in Ponte Vedra Beach, and I’m in Jax all the time when I’m down there.”  He looked over at Morgan, staring at the adults with big, round eyes, and winked.  The little girl giggled.

Nate glanced back at the doctor.  “That’s got to be some kind of karma, right?”

Dr. Bell registered his flirtation, and her eyes widened in surprise.  A slight blush colored her smooth cheeks.  He could feel his smile broaden as she somewhat defiantly returned his look, and it occurred to him that perhaps the good doctor was issuing a challenge.

Well, he’d be more than happy to oblige her.  He knew without a shadow of a doubt he was going to find out just what this lovely doctor was all about.

Hardball is available in e-book format from Amazon and Smashwords for just $2.99.

Have a great day, everyone!