The Duke Meets His Match Preview

A Steamy Regency Romance

About the book


He promised her brother he wouldn’t let her get hurt. Only...

Just as her terrible uncle announces her betrothal to a very lecherous Earl, Lady Ivy Marple knows that her life cannot get any worse. And due to the tragic loss of her family, she stopped believing in miracles long ago...

Burdened with an impossible task by his late friend, Charles Landon, the Duke of Nelson, has to ensure Lady Ivy is happy. The problem? How does a man with an illegitimate child save a damsel in distress?

Just as he approaches her with his preposterous plan, Ivy is certain her brother’s friend has no moral qualms. But if she has to choose to become a governess over her upcoming nuptials, then that she will. Even if she is sure to lose more than her reputation in the process...

 

Chapter One


Lady Ivy Marple ducked behind a pillar, a fan before her face, and whisked her skirts out of sight. Her stepmother, the Countess of Fairow, continued past, and Ivy heaved a sigh of relief. After waiting a few moments for the music for the next dance to begin, she emerged and rejoined her friend, Lady Eliza Carlton.

“You know, you can’t keep hiding every time,” Eliza said, surveying her friend with equal parts amusement and impatience. “Sooner or later, you know she’ll have you dancing with the Earl.”

Ivy brushed a blonde curl from her face. “I have no intention of dancing with that man again.”

“Because he’s monstrously old, or has no teeth?”

“Oh, he has teeth,” Ivy said with feeling, “and believe me, I wish he didn’t.” She cast a dark look at the object of their derision, the Earl of Cartworth. At first glance, he was perhaps undeserving of such mockery, but Ivy had been on the receiving end of his attentions since she’d emerged into Society after her father’s death—and she’d endured as much of it as she could bear. “You would not believe how his breath smells, and as for those wandering hands—I hardly see how anyone can countenance him.”

Countess Fairow emerged through the crowd at the edge of the room once again, and with Eliza’s arm in hers, Ivy hurried away, out of the ballroom and to the staircase. Other couples wandered the halls of the large Manor, and no one paid the two giggling girls much attention as they ascended to the landing and sat on the window seat. Ivy rested her head against the cool glass.

“You know,” she said, “I wonder how Mama can consider him an adequate suitor. Uncle Maximus I can understand.” She gave a shudder at the thought of her uncle, resplendent tonight in a pair of breeches almost obscenely tight. “But Mama? The Earl is practically old enough to be my father.”

Eliza, dark where Ivy was blonde, frowned at Ivy’s pensive stare. “Have you expressed these thoughts to your stepmother?”

“Oh, she dismisses them as being undutiful.”

“The Earl is rich—” Eliza said, pausing on the thought even as she uttered it.

“If you’d heard the comment about my childbearing hips, Eliza, My Dear, you would put aside any thoughts of his wealth.” Ivy’s laugh was bitter, but as was her nature, she replaced her grimace with a smile. “Come! This is sad talk for a ball—and the first since I’ve come out of mourning. We have such a vantage point here.” She stared at the couples crossing the light that spilled across the lawn. “There, do you see Lady Margaret walking with Lord Wentworth? What a couple they make.”

“They married last Season,” Eliza reminded her.

Ivy smiled at the way Lord Wentworth took his wife’s hand and pressed it to his lips. “So they did, and it’s clear they married for love. Don’t you think that would be wonderful?”

“To marry for love?” Eliza sighed mournfully. “I believe one requires suitors for that.”

“You may have some of mine—there’s one in particular I could very well see go.”

Both girls laughed before lapsing into silence. Had Ivy’s luck been different and had her father not died, followed by her brother mere days later, she might be married by now, or at least courted by a man she would consider marrying. As it was, she had yet to meet a man that stirred any of the feelings she was certain a man should. When she was twelve, her stepmother had married her father for love—it could have been nothing else—and she had been party to their utter devotion.

And now, though she grieved the loss of her father and brother, she would settle for nothing else, no matter what her uncle decided.

“Oh!” Eliza pointed into the gardens, beyond the fountain to the maze that lay beyond. “I do believe that’s the Duke of Nelson.”

Ivy pressed a hand against the base of her throat. Tall, although not overly so, he was known to all of London as a rake, and with good reason. There were few women alive who could resist his charming smile, the wicked gleam in his blue eyes, and the way his chestnut curls fell across his forehead—in a style no young buck, no matter how they tried, could match. He had also been the friend of her late brother, Frederick.

“Mama told me yesterday he lives with his natural daughter,” Eliza said, “though he calls her his ward.”

“Yes,” Ivy said, not taking her gaze from him. “I’ve heard that, too. Isn’t it shocking?”

“I’m hardly surprised.” Eliza lowered her voice to a whisper. “Mama told me he seduces women for fun.”

Frederick would never have done those things. “I suspect rumor has a lot to answer for,” Ivy said, but she wasn’t certain she believed it. “Besides, if that’s the case, why do all the young ladies of this Season throw themselves at him?”

Eliza turned dark eyes to Ivy in amusement. “You know everyone wants what they can’t have.”

“Ah, the fate of a rake—to never marry.”

“Thirty is a perfectly reasonable time to marry,” Eliza mused, “and since he inherited his father’s Estate, I believe he must have given it some thought.”

Ivy breathed against the windowpane and traced her initials against the glass. “Is that wishful thinking?”

I will never have a chance. Mama has warned me never to dance with him. I must be content with watching from the side—or from above.”

“For shame,” Ivy said with a smile, her head still against the window. “Are you so weak minded as to fall in love with a rake after one dance?” She watched him pace and throw his head back to watch the stars. “Or is your mother concerned you may follow him into the gardens and engage in disreputable behavior of your own?”

Eliza’s mouth twitched, but she kept a straight face with effort. “I must own her concerns would not be unfounded.”

Ivy laughed and slid from the window seat. “Then let us tempt fate—or jealousy—and see what handsome young men of few morals do when alone in the garden.”

“Ivy,” Eliza protested even as she followed her friend. “You know Mama would lock me in my chamber if she found me venturing into the gardens with the Duke of Nelson.”

“You shan’t be venturing into the garden with the Duke,” Ivy tossed over her shoulder. “You’ll be venturing into the gardens with me.” Ignoring the warning voice in her head—that her recklessness would see her in trouble—she barged back into the ball, only to be confronted by the Duke himself.

***

Charles Landon, the reluctant Duke of Nelson and even more reluctant guest of the Witherington’s Annual Ball, entered the ballroom from the garden, and leaned against the wall, watching the dancing couples with a critical eye. If he’d had the choice, a luxury he was rarely afforded these days, he would never have attended such a dull event, but there had been two circumstances forcing his hand. The first being Lady Witherington, who had insisted on his attendance. This may not have been compelling enough on its own if he hadn’t been in conjunction with his other circumstance.

Lady Ivy Marple.

He’d seen her little since she was a child, the last time being at Frederick’s funeral, and he was unprepared to reconcile the gangly child she’d been, all freckles and long arms, with the beautiful young lady before him.

“Oh.” For a fraction of a second, she lost her composure, and she glanced about the room. Odd how he hadn’t noticed before that her eyes were a singular shade of green; similar to the shade seen on trees at late summer. He had never seen their like before. “Your Grace.” She curtsied.

“Lady Ivy.” He swept into a bow. “How nice to see you.”

Irritatingly, she didn’t look as though it was nice to see him; her gaze slipped behind him, her eyes widened, and she chewed on her lip.

He hadn’t known, when he’d promised Frederick he would care for his sister as needed, that Ivy would have grown into such a beauty—or that her figure, skinny as it had been as a child, would have developed into lush curves.

“How is your family—” he started, but she held up a hand, her dance card dangling.

“I have no partner for the next dance.”

He had a suspicion his charms were not the reason she had asked him, or been so forward; his first instinct was to pry further, or reject her outright, but he caught himself. He had to speak with her, after all.

“In which case,” he said graciously, though he’d not come here with the intention of dancing, “might I have this next dance?”

“Yes—and hurry.” She put her hand in his and glanced behind him. As they walked out onto the dance floor, he followed her glance, but was unable to pick out which demon or specter haunted her.

“Might I learn why my company has been thus selected?” he asked.

She glanced up at him, an arrested look in her eyes. “Have you not danced yet tonight?”

“You are the first.”

She glanced around, at the gazes on them, the whispers that rustled under fluttering fans. He would pay for this later—but what did the rumor mill have to do except spread more stories about him?

“I’m glad to see you well,” he said. The last time they had met had been at the funeral, and he’d had little enough time to convey his sympathies. “How is your family?”

“Oh.” Once again, she looked behind him. “My family is—they are well, thank you.”

He smiled down at her, letting the expression warm his eyes, and squeezed her fingers in his. “You’re looking exceptional tonight, My Lady.”

Her gaze snapped back to his, surprise in the depths of her eyes. “Thank you.” A flush crept up her neck, past those delectable curls framing her face, and he pulled her a little closer—not close enough to be improper, but close enough she was aware of his proximity. Finally, the blush made it to her cheeks, and her lips parted.

Damn him, he wanted to kiss her.

She had no right being quite so enticing.

“Now,” he said, certain he had her attention. “What are you running from?”

Surprise stained the green of her eyes. “What makes you think I’m running from anything?”

“While it bruises my ego to admit this, I know you didn’t ask me to dance for the pleasure of dancing alone.”

A smile, both self-conscious and amused, curved her lips. “I’m surprised you asked me to dance in such circumstances.”

“As am I,” he said.

“If you must know, Lord Cartworth has been seeking me out all evening.”

“Cartworth?” He blinked. “Good Lord.”

“Precisely,” she said with a touch of grimness.

He moved, following the steps of the dance, and located Cartworth, a man whose wealth was his only recommendation. “He’s old enough to be your father.”

“Don’t remind me.” She shuddered. “If I have to spend another moment in his company, I shall scream.”

Charles could hardly blame her. Now was the moment to confess the duty Frederick had placed on him—which, by dancing with her, he was fulfilling—but gazing at her, flushed and indignant, bringing up her dead brother hardly seemed appropriate.

The orchestra played the final chord, the dance ended, and he bowed. “It was a pleasure,” he said, surprised to find it was true. He rarely enjoyed dances with young ladies—especially unmarried ones who were unused to a man’s touch—but she had fire most girls in their first or second Season lacked. “Might I have a—”

“Charles!” Lady Witherington said in a spectacularly low voice, descending on him in a burst of scented air and too many bangles. Powder caught in the creases of her plump cheeks and her breasts bulged from the top of her very low-cut dress. Once, long ago when they’d both been younger—and he susceptible to the charms of an older woman—he’d found her attractive. Now, time had stripped most of her charms from her. “I knew you’d come.” She glanced at Ivy. “And of course, Lady Ivy.”

Ivy bobbed a curtsy just as the Earl of Cartworth joined them. A disagreeable party, but there was little chance of it lasting long.

“Lady Ivy,” Cartworth said, pressing her hand against his lips. She froze, an expression of disgust on her face. Charles could only presume that was from the stench of his breath, although perhaps it was from the older man’s entirely unprepossessing appearance. “I’ve been looking for you all evening.”

“I didn’t know you were inclined to dance,” Lady Witherington said to him, distracting his attention from Ivy. “You should have let me know.”

“The Marples have a longstanding relationship with my family,” he said smoothly. Though it was true he must eventually marry—a meek woman would match his needs well and not impinge too much on his freedoms—he had no intention of betraying this to Lady Witherington.

“The country dances are just about to begin,” Cartworth said, grabbing Ivy’s card and flipping it to see if she was otherwise engaged. “Excellent—I knew you must have left them for me. Shall we?”

“Actually—”

“She would be delighted,” a cold voice said. The final member of their party—a party Charles had every intention of leaving at the earliest moment—joined them in the form of the Countess of Fairow, Lady Heather Marple. Although she had married the Earl after Frederick had left home, and therefore Charles had little to do with her, he’d always had the impression she was a fierce woman. This impression was further solidified by the sharp look in her blue eyes as she looked at Ivy.

Cartworth’s smile widened and he led her to the dance floor. The Countess gave them both a smile and left Charles to the attentions of Lady Witherington.

“Now, My Dear, what a good thing it is we’re alone,” she tittered, taking his arm in hers. “I took the liberty of ensuring the drawing room is entirely empty. My husband is settled in the billiards room and will be certain not to disturb us.”

Devoid of other entertainment at a dull affair like this, five years ago he might have taken her up on her offer. As it was, he wanted nothing less than to tangle himself with her.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he said, removing his arm from hers. “I have a great many constraints on my time.”

She drew away from him. “That won’t be possible?”

“I’m afraid not.” With a bow over her hand, as perfunctory as he could manage, he strode away and left her staring after him.

On the dance floor, Ivy glowered at the Earl as she pulled her hand free from his.

Charles had experience of ladies giving a show of rejection when they had every intention of accepting his advances. He was more than familiar with the art of dancing with a woman and ensuring her entire attention was on him and the intimacy of their bodies. He knew how to read a lady’s expression—when to know if he had pushed too far, or if she was not receptive to his attentions.

Ivy had been more than receptive to him. He’d learned to recognize the shocked awareness in her eyes, the color that stained her cheeks, the way her breath caught at the top of her throat.

She was not receptive to Cartworth.

This didn’t come as a surprise, but when the dance ended and Ivy fled back to the safety of her friend—followed by Cartworth with predatory haste—Charles stepped in front of him.

“Cartworth,” Charles said, stepping in front of him. “May I congratulate you on your dancing?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ivy and Eliza slip out of the glass doors onto the lawn and into the garden. “I was watching you closely.”

To his credit—or perhaps his detriment—Cartworth’s smirk only grew. “You must therefore have seen what a prize I held.”

“Indeed I did.”

“She’s a beauty, don’t you agree?”

“Certainly, although I didn’t know you were close with her father.”

“Not her father,” Cartworth said, baring blackening teeth in a smile. “Her uncle.”

Frederick had never been complimentary about his uncle, and if the man was encouraging this fossil’s pursuit of Ivy, Charles could see why. “It’s good of you to take such a fatherly interest in her,” Charles said.

For the first time, Cartworth’s smile slipped. “My interest is not fatherly.”

Charles eyed the man speculatively, a spark of threat in his blue eyes. “My mistake.”

“Damn right it’s your mistake,” Cartworth growled. “Now—confound it, where’s the girl gone?”

With no intention of letting Cartworth know he had seen Ivy leave, Charles made his way toward the garden, only for the Dowager Countess of Glastonbury to stand before him, a pale girl in tow.

“Your Grace,” she said with a curtsy. “How delightful to see you here.”

Charles bit back his annoyance and bowed over her hand. “My Lady. Be assured I had no intention of missing such an event.”

“My niece, Lady Anne Sherwood.”

He turned to the girl; a red-headed chit with a sweet smile and a shyness that spoke of timidity. “An honor to meet you, Lady Anne.”

The girl flushed and dipped into a curtsy. “The honor’s mine, Your Grace.”

“Lady Anne has the next dance available,” the Dowager Countess said.

Charles cursed the gods of decorum—and that everyone had seen him dance with Ivy, thus marking him as a potential partner. He fixed a smile on his face. “Would you do me the honor of dancing with me, Lady Anne?”


Chapter Two


Ivy stormed across the grass, her dress tangling around her slippers as she allowed the cool air to soothe her heated cheeks. “The audacity of the man,” she raged. “I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life, and no one did anything to prevent it. I looked at Mama several times and every time she was engaged in conversation with my uncle.” She paused, her bosom heaving, and glared at an outrageously plump cherub that framed the fountain. “I hardly know how he can bear to look at me after compromising me so thoroughly in full sight of everyone.”

Eliza glanced back at Witherington Manor, blazing with light. “I believe we’ve lost him.”

“If we haven’t, I should be tempted to give him a piece of my mind.”

“Save us both,” Eliza pleaded, taking Ivy’s arm. “You know no good can come of your temper.”

“I defy any young woman not to lose their temper after such provocation.” She glowered into the fountain. “If he were here, I would push him in.”

Despite herself, Eliza laughed. “I ought to say you would not—or at least should not—but we both know he deserves it.”

“Imagine him wet and spluttering.” Ivy’s temper eased as she laughed. “What a sorry figure he would make.”

“Unlike the Duke,” Eliza teased.

Unlike the Duke. Ivy couldn’t imagine the Duke looking like a sorry anything—either contrite or bedraggled. He was a man totally in control of every situation; even the situation of her forcing him to dance so she could avoid the Earl—a ploy that didn’t work anyway.

He also had a disconcerting habit of smiling, a long, slow smile, as though she were the only girl in the world. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to pull him closer or hit him, but the sight of that smile—somehow hungry—stirred something in her.

“He flirts dreadfully,” she said, resolving to put him out of mind, “and I don’t believe he means a word of it.”

Eliza giggled. “Your uncle was furious.”

“Let him be furious.” She glanced back at the Manor. If Fred had been here, he would have both dragged her back to the ball by her ears and protected her from Lord Cartworth’s clammy-handed attentions. A pang of grief had her throat closing, and she forced a smile. “Let’s stay out here for the rest of the evening. No one will think to look for us here—and if they do, we can hide.”

“No one will see us behind that bush,” Eliza said. “And there’s a bench there, do you see?”

Ivy accepted Eliza’s arm and the two girls hurried across the damp grass to the bench, where they could watch the comings and goings from the ball into the garden. Ivy watched the couples find shadowed corners to exchange kisses and wondered what that would be like—to have such faith in a man that she would trust him to kiss her in a way that would ruin her if discovered.

A year ago, before her father’s death, when she had wanted nothing more than to marry to support her family, she wouldn’t have considered the risk worth the reward. But now, her heart bruised and aching, and her uncle more interested in the monetary value of her suitors, she dreamed of a man cupping her face in his hands and kissing her—and the rush of—

What? There had to be something that made the risk, the tingling danger of it, worthwhile.

For the first time, Ivy wished she understood.

***

It took Charles two dances and conversations with countless young ladies before he finally escaped to the gardens. Ivy wasn’t the type of young lady to engage in trysts in the garden—or at least, she hadn’t been when he knew her—but he’d watched the door, and neither she nor her friend had re-entered.

He only reached the lawn when a young woman hurried toward the door, tears staining her cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, holding out a hand. “Has something happened?”

“It’s my puppy.” She gasped and pressed the back of her hand to her cheeks. “Sally. I’ve lost her. She’s only a baby and I can’t find her.”

Seeing she was about to lose her hold on her composure entirely, Charles put his hands on her shoulders and waited until she met his gaze. “Where did you lose her?”

“Here. In the gardens, I mean. I took her out so she could relieve herself, but she slipped free of the leash and ran away. I’ve been out here ever since calling her but I can’t find her.” Her shoulders shook under his hands, and she looked in imminent danger of breaking down entirely.

“You shouldn’t be out there,” he said, releasing her. The girl was barely eighteen and was not the type of woman to seek entertainment at his hands—or indeed anyone else’s outside in a place such as this. “Allow me to search for Sally. If I find her, I’ll bring her back indoors.”

The girl sniffed as she looked up at him in blind adoration. “Thank you—?”

“The Duke of Nelson,” he said.

“Oh.” She paled as she curtsied. “Your Grace.”

He smiled, but she flinched as though he’d slapped her. “Fear not,” he said, “I don’t bite.”

She glanced behind him to the Manor. “I ought to return to the ball,” she said, edging past him. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

He watched her practically run across the lawn to the Manor—not that he could blame her. If he were a helpless female in danger of being caught in a compromising position with a man Society considered a rake, he wouldn’t linger, either.

Now to find this wretched dog of hers.

***

Ivy wasn’t certain how she’d ended up in the maze. A couple had almost stumbled across them, and they had scattered—Eliza back into the Manor and Ivy into the maze.

If it had been daylight, she might have found her way back with more ease, but in the dark, with little but the distant light of the Manor to guide her—and the giggling sounds of couples pursuing amorous intentions all around—she was lost.

She cupped her elbows as she walked, pausing before every corner in case someone should come around unexpectedly. If someone found her in here, her reputation would be ruined—although that would have the benefit of Lord Cartworth presumably being less interested in her. She paused by a corner she was convinced must be near the entrance, waited until she was sure there was no one coming, and turned directly into something as hard as rock.

“Oh!” Ivy stumbled back, her wretched cheeks flaming again. “Your Grace—my apologies.”

The Duke looked quite as surprised to see her as he was, and he ran a hand through his curls, dark in this light. “Lady Ivy,” he said. “How fortunate.”

She recovered her composure—and her irritation. She had seen him on the lawn, holding that girl—barely out of the schoolroom for Heaven’s sake—the man could do as he pleased, but she would not linger to see it. “In here of all places?” she snapped. “I hardly think so.”

The Duke smiled; a long, slow smile. “We do appear to be in the maze,” he agreed. “Alone.”

Oh, of all things, they were alone. She was alone with a man who regarded her as his next meal.

It was dangerous to remain here with him.

“Please,” she said, sweeping to the side and gesturing him forward. “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you have more pressing things to do.”

“On the contrary, My Lady.”

“I saw you flirting with that girl,” she said, vexed at herself for caring. “No man enters this place without certain intentions, but my lips are sealed on that front.”

His smile widened. “And what about young ladies? Do they enter this place with similar intentions?”

For the first time, Ivy became aware of how very tall Charles Landon was. Beside her brother, who had the height advantage, he had never seemed quite so monstrously large, but here and now, he towered over her. “I’m not acquainted with those young ladies, Your Grace.”

“Perhaps not,” he said, “but the fact remains you’re here.”

Ivy had not, at any point in his overpowering presence, been allowed to forget. “As are you.”

“It appears I am.” He took a step toward her. “And as it happens, we’re here together.”

They were, and here, with all sounds from the party muted—the loudest sounds were her breathing and his voice, low and husky—so it seemed they were the only two people around. Most men would have apologized and led her back to the ballroom, but the Duke was not most men, and she—well, she was not most women, because at no point had she insisted they leave.

She had known him since she was a child, but this was different. Never before had he made her breath catch at the top of her throat. Never before had be looked at her in such a way.

Frederick would not have approved, but he wasn’t here. And they were.

Charles looked at her appraisingly, at the way her fingers toyed ceaselessly with the hem of her gloves, the dewiness of her eyes in the moonlight, their breath coalescing between them. By God, he hadn’t anticipated her to have grown into such a beauty—and one with such subtle charm she seemed oblivious to it.

He should resist, but resisting was an artform kept for the bleak light of day, not the mystery of night.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

“I believe a more apt question is why are you here, Ivy?”

Her breath tangled at the casual use of her name. It sounded different when he used it; midnight and silky and oh-so-very dangerous. “Not for the reasons you might suppose, Your Grace.”

“Your Grace?” A small smile toyed around his mouth. “Why don’t you call me Charles and have done with it?”

“That would be highly inappropriate.”

“True—if we were in a ballroom.”

“Where we should be,” she said, but her voice lacked conviction. A ballroom had never set her alive the way this encounter did, with anticipation—and yes, excitement—fired to ends of her fingers. Her stomach squirmed.

He advanced still further, until her back pressed against the hedge that made up the maze. “Tell me you wish me to leave,” he whispered, leaning down until his face was just above hers. “Tell me you wish to be done with this conversation, and I shall walk away, though you should know it will cost me to do so.”

“A single word and you’ll leave?”

His breath washed over her face, heavy with the scent of wine. “Of course. I’ve never forced myself on a woman—and I’ve never needed to.”

“You think a great deal of yourself,” she said.

In this light, his eyes appeared shrouded in mystery—she knew them to be a spectacular color—the deep blue of sky sinking into dusk—but darkness rendered them gray and impossible to read. “Am I to find all pride comes before a fall?”

The hedge pressed against her back. If she ever was to repel him, now would be her moment. But although she knew it was wrong, though she knew her senses must be impaired, she didn’t want this moment to end.

“In which case,” he murmured, “I have something I’ve been wanting to do since our dance, Ivy.” He caught her face between his hands and kissed her.

She had expected the kiss—wanted it, even—but she hadn’t expected it to feel like this. His lips were both soft and unyielding; he commanded her to submit, urged her to open her mouth, and with a gasp, she did. Her world contracted to Charles. The way his fingertips grazed her earlobes, the way he pressed against her until her body aligned itself with hers. He tasted of wine and something else she couldn’t identify, but that tasted a lot like his scent.

His hand crept around the back of her neck, tilting her head so he could deepen the kiss—and this, this, was what she had been dreaming of. This was the frantic, desperate need she’d been certain the other young ladies had experienced—the elimination of anything but this moment, so raw and powerful and heated her head spun.

The other hand slid down her waist, burning through her dress to her skin and leaving a trail of heat behind it, and reached her lower back. With a nip of her lower lip—one that sent unfamiliar longing through her—he pressed her body more tightly against his; tightly enough she could feel his firm chest, his leg straddling one of hers, and something hard and rigid that pressed against her hip.

This kiss was not enough—she wanted more, needed more, and—

Something barked.

With a muttered curse, Charles released her and stepped back. Cold air swept between them, settling her spinning head, as he bent and picked up a small dog that ran past his feet.

“Ah,” he said. “Sally.”

They were not alone—could not be alone if there was a dog here. And she had kissed him with such reckless abandon and want of propriety. She had kissed him. Good Lord, she had kissed one of London’s most notable rakes in the garden at Lady Witherington’s ball.

“I must go,” she said distractedly, wringing her hands. “I trust—you will not tell anyone of this.”

He tucked the dog under one arm and straightened her curls, putting them back in place around her face. The gesture seemed oddly intimate—more so, in some ways, than the kiss—and the gentleness of it made her heart contract. “No one will know,” he said. “You have my word.”

She nodded, gazed up at the shadow-stained features of the man she’d known from birth but never known till that moment, and fled in the direction from whence he came.

Charles stroked the puppy absently as he watched her leave. Seducing young ladies in their first or second Season wasn’t usually a game he played—and certainly not one he considered in good taste. She was a siren, and finding her out here had been an opportunity too good to miss—especially as she had been a willing participant—but it had to stop there. No matter the temptation, he ought not trifle with Frederick’s sister.

And, confound him, he hadn’t found an opportunity to discuss with her the terms of his pledge to Frederick, and in what matter he could assist her. The puppy in his arms yipped and licked his cheek. “You and me both, old friend,” he said, and made his way back to the ballroom.

***

“I have something I must tell you,” Ivy said to Eliza, taking her arm and pulling her away from her mama. The heat and the music threatened to overwhelm her senses, already painfully heightened, and she pressed a hand to her cheek. “Oh, Eliza, you would never guess what just happened—”

“There you are!” Her uncle, Lord Marple, the new Earl of Fairow, took her arm and squeezed, his fingers uncomfortably tight. “I’ve been looking for you for quite a while, young lady.”

“I was in the library,” she invented wildly. “The ball is so very crowded, you see.”

“Yes, well, never mind that.” He tugged her along behind him, and she sent a desperate glance at Eliza. “I’ve got an announcement to make and there’s no use you hiding away where no one can see you after the expense I’ve been put to making you presentable.”

Ivy glanced at her satin dress, baby blue and trimmed with silver embroidery. “I made this dress up myself, Uncle, as you well know.”

“And who bought that dress to begin with? It certainly wasn’t your father.” With a grunt, he brought her to the orchestra and gestured for them to stop playing. Ivy scanned the crowd, in time to see Charles re-enter the ballroom with a dog in his arms. A young lady, the very same she saw him flirting with on the lawn, launched herself at the dog and offered him what appeared to be a tearful show of gratitude.

He glanced up, met her gaze for a moment, and looked away.

“Attention everyone,” her uncle called, letting his booming voice quiet the guests. All eyes turned to them, and Ivy felt herself shrink inside her dress—a dress that she had worn in a different form only two weeks ago. How many people would notice? “I have an announcement I would like to make.”

Oh no.

“I have the pleasure of announcing the engagement between my niece, Lady Ivy Marple, and the Earl of Cartworth.”

Charles watched Ivy’s face drop as Lord Cartworth, smiling and bowing his gratitude, approached her and grabbed her hand, forcing it to his mouth as she stood, pale faced and trembling. No member of that party—not Lord Marple, not Lord Cartworth, and not even Lady Witherington—seemed to notice anything amiss or to do anything to rescue the poor girl whose fire had been utterly doused. She stared, eyes wide with terror, but with her father and Frederick gone, there was no one left to save her.

No, damn it, that wasn’t true. Frederick had asked him to look out for Ivy, and presumably that meant getting her out of this fix. He looked around for Ivy’s dark-haired friend and, upon seeing her, made his way across to her side. Ignoring the daggers from her mama, who sat on the sidelines with the other dowagers, he bowed before her.

“Might I have a moment of your time?” he asked. Damn him, he couldn’t remember her name.

She glanced across at Ivy with a frown and nodded. “Of course, Your Grace.”

“I know you’re close with Lady Ivy,” he said without preamble as soon as they were alone. “She may not have told you, but I was close friends with her late brother, Frederick.”

She inclined her head. “I believed she mentioned it.”

“Fred asked me to help her with anything she might need.” He gave a grim smile. “I believe now might be my moment to prove my use. Please convey to her that I shall do all I can to be of assistance.”

“Of course, Your Grace, but—how can you convince her uncle not to go ahead with this engagement?”

“Through any means necessary,” he said.


Chapter Three


Ivy paced the drawing room, slapping her gloves against the palm of her hand. Her uncle and stepmother closed the door behind them.

At first, shock had rendered her mute, and she didn’t dare make a scene in a crowd—and such a crowd, with the cream of London watching them. Here, however, in the comfort of her home and with only the servants to hear them, she had no intention of biting her tongue.

“Before you make a fool of yourself,” her uncle said, his voice clipped, “might I suggest you consider the position your alliance with the Earl offers you.”

“My alliance?” she stormed. “What about my happiness, Uncle? Is that not a factor in your decision?”

“No,” he said. “It is not.” Her uncle, the younger brother of her father, had inherited the same good looks as her father with none of his charm; they shared the fair hair she too had inherited, an aquiline nose and thin lips. But where her father had been warm and generous, her uncle was neither.

“I made my distaste of him clear,” she said, stopping in the middle of the room. Her hair had partially fallen from its pins, but she made no attempt to fix it now. “I was certain you could not be as cruel as to have me marry to a man old enough to be my father.”

“Ivy,” her stepmother said, reaching out an arm. “You know we are thinking of your future. A love match is all very well while the love lasts, but if there is no fortune, what will become of your children?”

Ivy stepped back. “You made a love match when you married my father.” As always, whenever anyone mentioned her father, her stepmother’s face slackened slightly. Ivy had never experienced the grief of losing a husband—only a father and brother—but she presumed it must be painful indeed for her stepmother to recoil at the very thought of him.

“I will not have Heather spoken to like that,” her uncle snapped. “Let me make myself plain, Ivy. This is a stroke of good luck and nothing you say will persuade me to change my mind. You will be married to the Earl of Cartworth by the end of the year and that is the end of it.”

“But—”

“There will be no buts!” He advanced, his face purpling and his hands clenched by his sides as though he might strike her. “You will be grateful, do you understand?”

Ivy’s nostrils flared. “I will not marry him.”

“You do not have a choice.” Spittle flew from his mouth. “Do not test me, girl, or you will regret it. If I have to lock you in your chamber until the wedding, I will do so. Mark my words.”

Ivy caught her breath. “Consider them marked,” she said, her voice shaking despite her best efforts to hold it firm. Fine—if her uncle wanted to behave in such a way, he could do so, and he would soon discover he did not have the dutiful niece he thought he had.

“Ivy, consider the benefits,” her stepmother said as she flounced from the room, but she didn’t stop, and the doors closed behind her. She stormed up the stairs to her chamber and flung herself on the bed. No matter the provocation, she could not marry the Earl of Cartworth with his rotting teeth and wandering hands. Especially not after having kissed Charles—though she should not have done that, and she should definitely not be thinking about it now; about his strength, the sureness of his hands, the way he overwhelmed her senses and she liked it.

No, after knowing what a kiss should be, the prospect of having to kiss the Earl was even more revolting. She rolled over and rang for her lady’s maid. Tomorrow, she would defy her uncle and plot a way to avoid this awful marriage he had arranged for her, but tonight her feet hurt and she craved her pillow.

If there was one thing Ivy was certain of, it was that she would do anything to avoid marrying the Earl. Absolutely anything.

***

Maximus tapped his fingers on his arm as he contemplated his late brother’s wife. “You’re too easy on the girl,” he said.

“You forget she lost her father and brother in quick succession.” Heather rose and approached him, the golden lamplight highlighting her dark hair with red tints. A tall woman, with unmatchable poise, she was almost as tall as he. Usually, he preferred his women to be shorter, less regal—and thus easier to keep under his thumb—but there was something bewitching about her.

“Grief is no excuse for stubbornness,” he said.

“Of course not,” she murmured, coming to a halt before him. “You’ve been very generous.”

“Damned right I have.”

“Given time, I’m certain she’ll come to see how lucky she is to have a doting uncle paving the way for a successful future.” She leaned into him, pressing her chest against his so she had to look up at him—something she knew he liked. “The Earl was a fantastic idea, my darling.”

“I’m glad you think so,” he said, puffing out his chest. The Earl had been an excellent idea, although now he came to think of it, he couldn’t be certain where the idea had originated. Originate it had, however, and considering the Earl was more than amenable—and keen to marry quickly—it couldn’t have been settled more to his satisfaction. “And the sooner she’s off our hands, the sooner we can stop paying out of the nose for this wretched Season. Do you know how much she’s cost me?”

“There now,” she said, running her hands along his shoulders. “Let’s not think of that.” Once, a few months ago, she had almost been overcome with guilt at their mutual attraction, but he’d been quick to assert how little her dear James would have minded if he’d known. It had taken some persuasion, but Maximus’ persistence had paid off in the end, and in addition to the Earldom, his at long last, he could claim his brother’s wife as his own.

He bent and kissed her, long and hard. “Shall we go upstairs?” he asked against her lips. “I have a few things I would… discuss with you.”

She leaned back and surveyed him with heavy-lidded eyes. “You may do with me as you wish, My Lord.” He glanced at the clock; it was only three. If he were quick, he could still make a gaming hell before the night drew to a close. He deserved nothing less after a tedious night at a ballroom making up to Cartworth while his ungrateful niece was nowhere to be found—avoiding them both, no doubt, while he ran around and made plans for both their futures.

“Then,” he said, pressing another kiss to Heather’s parted lips, “I can think of no reason to remain downstairs.”

She smiled at him and moved to the door, tossing a look over her shoulder he couldn’t resist—and nor did he want to. This was less of a commitment on his purse than any of the fancy pieces he frequented, and even more convenient. There could be no greater triumph in life than conquering a woman that until his brother’s death had been utterly devoted to another man. 

***

The next morning, Ivy sat by the pianoforte and painstakingly played her scales, pounding the keys with more force than expression, and glaring at her stepmother every time that woman looked tempted to say something.

So they remained until Lady Elizabeth Carlton was announced and Eliza, exceptionally pretty in a pink-and-white patterned morning dress, stepped into the room.

“Eliza!” Ivy rose from her seat before her stepmother could move. “How nice to see you. Come, we must away.”

Though her stepmother’s brows rose in disapproval, she made no comment as the girls left the room and ascended to Ivy’s chamber. Eliza pressed Ivy’s hand meaningfully, but it was only when they were safely shut in the chamber that she said, “I came as soon as I could. How are you?”

“How would you be if your engagement had been announced to the most lecherous lord of your acquaintance?” Ivy slumped on the bed. “He is vile, Eliza, and I refuse to marry him—though if I say such a thing to Uncle, he’s threatened to lock me in my chamber until the wedding.”

“Oh, Ivy.”

“Believe me, I’ve wallowed enough for the both of us.” She glanced at Eliza, coloring slightly. “The truth is, the engagement is not all I wanted to speak with you about.”

“Nor I you.” Eliza sat on the window seat and faced her friend, arms wrapped around her legs. “I come bearing a summons.”

“A summons?”

“I presume you remember the Duke of Nelson?”

Ivy’s flush grew. “Yes.”

“He spoke to me after the ball and asked me to assure you that he would do everything he could to help you out of this current situation.”

“Gracious.” Ivy pressed a hand to her burning cheek. “What motive could he possibly have for helping me avoid marriage?”

“As I understand it, your brother tasked him with keeping an eye on your welfare and helping where necessary,” Eliza said, her voice matter-of-fact, though her eyes sparkled with intrigue. “I can’t speak to his personal interests in rendering assistance in this case, but you can be certain he means to do so, and he has asked that you meet him today in Hyde Park.”

“Oh.” Ivy hardly knew what to think—all that came to mind was the way his eyes had looked in the seconds before he’d kissed her. “Eliza, you can’t think—he doesn’t want to marry me. A man like him”—a man who kissed young ladies for the sheer fun of it—“doesn’t just decide to marry.”

“He was at the ball last night,” Eliza pointed out.

“That proves nothing.”

Eliza bit her lip, and all she said was, “He will be by the Cumberland Gate this afternoon at three o’clock, if your stepmother can spare you.”

Ivy tossed her head. “I have no intention of giving her the option to refuse. Pray, stay with me and we shall go together.”

Eliza agreed, and the girls spent an agreeable morning thoroughly abusing the Earl of Cartworth, saying as little as possible to Lady Heather Marple, and reading each other passages from their favorite novels. By the time the afternoon came around, however, Ivy was unaccountably nervous.

It’s merely because he kissed me, she told herself, smoothing a hand across her dress—a sprigged muslin printed with delicate red flowers.

“Are you ready?” Eliza asked.

Ivy was certain she would never be ready for this meeting, but she summoned a smile. “Shall we depart?”

***

In truth, Charles had not expected to see Ivy after what had transpired between them in the gardens. At three o’clock precisely, however, the two girls approached, each the antithesis of the other; Eliza’s dark hair, pinned up prettily, set off Ivy’s blonde curls to perfection.

Ivy’s green eyes, the shade of a forest pool, met his and darted away again. He inclined his head. “Ladies.”

“Your Grace,” Eliza said. Ivy looked at her shoes as they curtsied.

“As you know, Lady Ivy, I was good friends with your brother,” he said, wishing this were less awkward. She bit her lip and he glanced at it before fixing his gaze firmly on the trees behind her. “I was fortunate enough to be by his side shortly after the accident, and he charged me with assisting you in any way possible.” He hesitated. “It was for that purpose, of offering my help and discharging my duty to Frederick, that I was at Lady Witherington’s ball yesterday evening.”

Now, she glanced up, questions written in those bewitching eyes of hers. “You had intended to speak with me?”

“That’s correct.”

“I wonder then,” she said, a trace of heat to her voice, “you didn’t do so.”

“I’m afraid I was—ah—charged with locating a lost puppy and by the time I had discharged this duty, your engagement had been announced.” Eliza frowned. Ivy had not told her friend about their kiss then; it was probably for the best, especially considering she clearly regretted the encounter. If they had been alone, he could have apologized. As it was, he merely offered her a smile she didn’t return.

“I’ve been considering what I can do to ease your predicament,” he said, “and it came to my attention my ward is in need of a governess.” Shock rippled across the faces of both girls—though whether it was because he mentioned a governess or his ward, he couldn’t be certain.

“A governess?” Ivy repeated.

“In name only,” he assured her. “I have no intention of forcing you into unsightly duties beneath your station. Consider it more of a companion role.”

Ivy had never thought, on coming to the Park, she might be asked to act as a governess to the Duke’s natural daughter. She looked up at Charles, whose face—a face she knew so well—held no signs of amusement. Not even his eyes, which she knew firsthand usually glimmered with wickedness.

“Let me be certain,” she said. “You are asking me to give up my home and my family to live with you as a governess?”

“At Nelson Hall, which I assure you is very far from London,” he said. “My ward—Alice—is a placid child. You will have no problems with her.”

Ivy’s eyes flashed fire. “Your presumption astonishes me. When you invited me here to meet you, I assumed you had some workable plan—something, in short, that would guarantee my escape from this betrothal.”

Charles spread his hands. “If there’s another option, please inform me. I am not your guardian, and short of marrying you myself—something I hardly need tell you is not a consideration—there is little I can do save remove you from the situation.”

Eliza laid her hand on Ivy’s arm. “Consider it,” she pleaded.

“I have no reason to believe I would make a good governess,” Ivy said. “I have no qualifications, no references.”

“You have your accomplishments.” Charles ran a hand through his hair and gestured along the path. They began walking. “Believe me, I know this isn’t the most favorable position, but I see no other way out.”

“And I would answer to you?”

“I will do everything in my power to make you comfortable.” She hated feeling beholden to anyone; her uncle paying for her Season was one thing—as family, and having inherited the title and the Estate, it was the least he could do—but owing Charles in such a way was intolerable.

She just had little choice in the matter.

“Very well,” she said, and Eliza squeezed her arm. “I made a vow I would never marry Lord Cartworth, and I intend to uphold that vow, no matter what it will cost me. I appreciate your generosity”—she almost choked on the words—“and would likewise appreciate your discretion.”

“I’m the soul of discretion,” he assured her, and for once she believed him.

“If my uncle hears of this, he will lock me in my chamber,” she continued, and Charles frowned. “I can only assume Lord Cartworth offered a generous settlement—my uncle has gambling debts, you know—and he is determined I shall marry favorably.”

“Horrid man,” Eliza said, and privately Charles couldn’t agree more.  

“I shall have a carriage waiting for you at midnight,” he said. “Can you pack and be ready to leave at that time?”

“And you?” she asked, though she hardly dared think of the answer, and what it might mean for her—for them. “Will you be leaving London, too?”

“For the present.” He didn’t utter his other thoughts—that it would be a relief to leave the fluttering debutantes and overbearing mothers behind, at least for a week or two. “I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t ensure you were settled in.”

“Then we are in agreement.” Ivy ignored the butterflies in her stomach as she held a gloved hand to him. They shook, each as solemn as the other, and she glanced at the sun, low in the sky now. “We should return home,” she said, “but I shall see you at midnight, Your Grace. Don’t fail me.”

Unable to resist, he bent over her hand and pressed his fingers against her knuckles, the warmth of her skin seeping through the material. She froze. “See you at midnight,” was all he said. The girls left, arm in arm, but Charles was still watching as Ivy glanced back, and he continued watching until they were out of sight.

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