The Naked Kingby Sally MacKenzie
Indiscretion Is Just The Beginning. . .
One night of slight overindulgenceoh, all right, he was drunkand Stephen Parker-Roth finds he must betroth himself to prevent yet another scandal. But his "intended" is lovely, a redheaded beauty under her horrendous, unfashionable bonnet, and before long, he's congratulating himself on compromising such/b>… See more details below
Indiscretion Is Just The Beginning. . .
One night of slight overindulgenceoh, all right, he was drunkand Stephen Parker-Roth finds he must betroth himself to prevent yet another scandal. But his "intended" is lovely, a redheaded beauty under her horrendous, unfashionable bonnet, and before long, he's congratulating himself on compromising such an excellent candidateand anticipating what other naughtiness they'll get caught at before the wedding. . .
Lady Anne Marston has long since given up any thought of marriage. That is the price she pays for the mistakes of her past. But one little conversation with a handsome rogue should never have led to a sham engagement. Even if it did end in a rather shocking kiss. . .in broad daylight. . .on the front step of London's premier gossip. Now, trapped between a secret and a lie, Anne must somehow disentangle herself from this charming, maddening man before the truth comes outor her heart gives in. . .
Praise for the Novels of Sally MacKenzie
"The romance equivalent of chocolate cake. . .every page is an irresistible delight!" Lisa Kleypas
"Plenty of sexy sizzle and charming wit."Booklist
"Plenty of heat and hilarity."Publishers Weekly
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The Naked King
By Sally MacKenzie
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Sally MacKenzie
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStephen Parker-Roth landed in a large puddle. Mud and water splashed into the air, soaking his breeches, spattering his coat, and decorating his face with flecks of dirt. He wiped a blob off his right cheek with a clean corner of his cravat and frowned at the perpetrator of this sartorial disaster. "You have deplorable manners, sir."
The miscreant blinked at him, tongue lolling. He looked not the slightest bit abashed, damn it.
"This wouldn't have happened if I weren't very, very drunk, you know."
The fellow tilted his head to one side.
"You doubt me?" Stephen leaned forward and poked his finger at the large beast to emphasize his point. "I warn you, I'm an exceedingly dangerous man. I've won brawls from Borneo to Buenos Aires to Boston. More than one blackguard has rued the day his path crossed mine."
The dog barked, a rather surprisingly deep, ringing sound, and put his head down on his front paws. His hindquarters remained in the air, tail waving like a flag in a stiff gale.
Stephen unbent enough to scratch the creature's ears. "Ah, well, I won't hold your ignorance against you. You're just a ..." He frowned. "No, you can't be a homeless cur—you're far too clean. How is it you're roaming Hyde Park by yourself?" His fingers found a collar in the dog's deep fur—and then he noticed the leash dragging in the grass. "Oh ho, you're not alone. What have you done with your master, sir?"
The dog's ears pricked up. A woman's voice, rich and incredibly alluring, called out, "Harry!"
"Or mistress ..." Stephen found himself addressing empty air. Harry was already bounding across the grass to a figure about a hundred yards distant. Stephen squinted in the sun. The female wore an enormous bonnet and a dress that looked like an oversized flour sack.
Pity. A voice that evoked twisted sheets and tangled limbs should not belong to an antidote.
The woman stooped to reclaim the leash, and Harry promptly began towing her back toward him. He'd best stand, then, like a gentleman should.
He struggled to his feet. The mud didn't want to let him go. MacInnes was going to have an apoplexy when he saw him. Why his valet, who didn't blink at tending his gear in the Amazon or the wilds of Africa, got as priggish as a damned dandy when they reached England's shores was beyond him.
Eh. The change in altitude was not felicitous. He bent over, resting his hands on his knees, and swallowed several times until the landscape stopped whirling and his last meal agreed to remain in his stomach. It would be shockingly bad form to greet the lady by casting up his accounts all over her slippers.
"Harry! Slow down!"
Even sharp and breathless, her voice sent a jolt of pleasure through him. He leaned forward a bit more to shield any obvious evidence of his interest.
Rein up, you cawker. She might have buck teeth and garlic breath; she might be toothless and eighty years old.
He glanced up. Well, not eighty. She was moving too quickly to be that ancient.
The dreadful bonnet slid back off her head as he watched. Ah! Now he saw the purpose of that hideous headgear—it hid her riot of bright red curls. They glinted in the sunlight like dew-kissed roses.
She had spectacles, too, that looked to be in danger of falling off her rather prominent nose, and delightfully full lips, currently twisted into a grimace. She wasn't beautiful, but she was definitely attractive.
Who was she? A maid assigned to walk the family dog? No sane butler or housekeeper would give this girl that task—the dog was walking her, not she the dog. A lady of the night? Unlikely. It was now an awful hour in the morning, and he'd never heard of a dasher with a large obstreperous dog, the voice of a siren, red curls, and spectacles. A fallen female with those striking attributes would be the talk of the male ton. Perhaps she was a widow.
Or married. Damn, he hoped she wasn't married. He didn't dally with married ladies.
He shook his head. Was he insane? How the hell had dalliance crept into his thoughts?
He was drunk. That was it. Very, very drunk.
And she was very flushed and very annoyed. She was glaring at him.
He was covered in mud—his shoes squelched with the stuff—but that wasn't his fault. Her dog was to blame.
Harry dragged her the last few yards and plopped down at his feet. The girl's brows were the same shade as her hair. She looked more like a flame than a rose, actually. Was she as fiery in bed?
He closed his eyes briefly. If he could remember how many glasses of brandy he'd had, he'd vow never to have so many again.
He regarded her glowering countenance. "Er, good morning." He sounded perfectly sober, if he said so himself. "It's, ah, a lovely morning, isn't it?"
"No, it's not." She blew out a short, sharp breath and pushed her hair back out of her face. Her green eyes were as stormy as a wind-tossed ocean, full of passion ...
Perhaps he should swear off brandy entirely, though drink had never made him so lustful before.
"I mean ..." She swallowed, obviously trying to get her spleen under control. "That is, yes, it is a lovely morning. How nice of you to say so after Harry caused you to fall into the mud. I apologize for his behavior."
Mmm, that voice. He'd so like to hear it threaded with need and desire, panting his name—
Definitely no more brandy.
"He's a sheep dog," the woman said. "I imagine he was trying to herd you away from the puddle, not into it." She reached back to reclaim her bonnet.
Oh, no. He couldn't let her cover her beautiful curls again with that monstrosity. He plucked the millinery mistake from her fingers and dropped it into the mud, mashing it down with his foot for good measure.
"My bonnet!" Lady Anne Marston gaped down at her poor bonnet, flattened under this rude person's shoe. What sort of gentleman attacked a woman's hat?
No sort of gentleman. The man might be handsome as sin with his startlingly clear blue eyes and shaggy, sun-streaked hair, but handsome is as handsome does—she had learned that lesson beyond hope of forgetting—and destroying a woman's bonnet was not handsomely done.
She drew in a breath to tell him exactly what she thought of such behavior—and stopped. Was that brandy she smelled? Certainly the man wasn't foxed at ten o'clock in the morning!
"Your bonnet is an abomination," he said.
"It is not!" And now he was insulting her as well. That was her favorite bonnet under his foot. It might not be stylish—she wasn't stylish—but she liked it. She'd had it for years.
"You didn't buy it in London, did you?"
"Of course not. London bonnets are frilly, silly dabs of straw and feathers and gewgaws. I need something serviceable."
She should leave. Yes, the man had landed in the mud, but it was probably more his fault than Harry's. Drunkards were notoriously unsteady. She tugged on Harry's leash, but the idiotic animal stayed where he was, at this human animal's feet.
"Serviceable?" He ground her poor hat deeper into the muck. "How could this atrocity be the least bit serviceable?"
"It protected me from the sun"—and kept critical eyes off my disreputable hair.
She would admit that last only to herself, certainly not to him. What did this fellow know of the matter anyway? He didn't have red hair—though, being a man, he probably wouldn't care if he did.
He snorted. "It protected you from the sun and every male who saw you in it, I'll wager."
Oh, she'd like to kick the cod's head exactly where it would hurt him most. He didn't think she was some silly miss on the catch for a husband, did he? "I'd hoped it would protect me from annoying men"—she sniffed, giving him her best pretention-depressing look—"such as yourself."
He chuckled. "Now that's put me in my place, hasn't it? And here I just rescued you from the ugliest bonnet in Britain." He leaned forward slightly, sending another whiff of brandy her way. "When you go looking for a replacement, try Madam le Fleur's in Bond Street. Fleur's hats are far more attractive."
Of course this fribble would be an expert in female fashion. She jerked on Harry's leash again; Harry merely yawned. "You are drunk, sir."
He nodded, looking not the least bit repentant. "I'm very much afraid I am."
"Did you rise early, then, to begin your debauchery?" It was a shame—in an academic, aesthetic sense only, of course—that such a handsome man was so dissipated.
"No. I haven't yet been to bed."
"You haven't?" She looked at his clothes more closely. Under all the mud they were indeed evening wear.
And under the clothes were exceptionally broad shoulders, a flat stomach, narrow hips ... She flushed. Damn her coloring. She squeezed her eyes shut and drew in a deep breath—still tainted with the scent of brandy. What was the matter with her? Yes, even drunk this fellow was terribly attractive, but he was a man, and men were only trouble. She'd sworn off the breed years ago.
"But while I haven't engaged in any debauchery yet this morning ..."
He paused suggestively, and, damn it, she couldn't keep her eyes shut. She looked at him.
"... I'd be willing to attempt some now, if you'd like." He waggled his eyebrows.
Much to her surprise, she had to swallow a laugh instead of a gasp.
His eyes gleamed and his lips slid slowly into a smile—with dimples, blast it all. "Care to tuck me into bed?"
"No!" He was the very worst sort of London coxcomb, just the kind of male she'd worried about encountering on this unfortunate trip. So why was she finding him so amusing? The horrifying truth was part of her did wish to tuck the handsome rascal in. "Behave yourself."
She would not let herself be taken in again. This man might not seem at all like Lord Brentwood on the surface, but his heart was likely as black. His heart and another, specifically male organ.
"Oh, well." He shrugged. "I'll be off to bed straightaway then once I've seen you home." He raised his brows, looking ridiculously hopeful. "If you're certain you'd not like to read me a bedtime story at least?"
She turned another laugh into a cough. He was indeed an accomplished seducer if he could charm her well armored heart. She must be sure to keep her half sister away from him. At eighteen, Evie was too young to have learned to be suspicious of handsome scoundrels. "Quite certain. And there is no need for you to escort me."
"Oh, but there is. You know I wouldn't be a gentleman if I didn't see you safely home."
She turned her nose up at him. "You are not a gentleman—and I am quite all right by myself."
"No, you're not. A gently bred woman needs a male to protect her."
She glared. "I have Harry—he is both male and protective."
"And you have no control over him."
"Oh, and I have more control over you?"
The moment the last word left her lips, she froze, as if she'd shocked herself, and then flushed. Her eyes dropped in apparent embarrassment—and focused on his crotch.
Damn. He wasn't about to hide behind his hands like a bashful virgin, but if she stared at him much longer, she would get quite an education in male anatomy.
"I assure you, I can find my way home by myself." Her eyes moved on to her dog, thank God. "Forgive me for not apologizing earlier for the state of your clothing. I intended to immediately"—her eyes came back up to scowl at him—"and would have if you hadn't accosted my bonnet."
"I wouldn't have accosted your bonnet," he said, stepping on it once more and twisting his foot to grind it farther into the grime, "if it hadn't so vilely accosted my eyes and my male sensibilities."
She pressed her lips into a tight line, obviously wishing to brangle with him, but equally obviously restraining herself. Too bad. He found sparring with her surprisingly stimulating.
She took a deep breath, causing her formless bodice to swell in a rather interesting fashion. "In any event," she said, "Harry was at fault." She dropped her eyes to his muddied cravat. "Your clothing is likely irreparably damaged; my father will wish to make it right. Please have your bills sent to Lord Crane."
"Ah." That was why he didn't know her. Crane spent even less time in London than he did. "So you're Crazy Crane's daughter."
He was sober enough to notice her flinch, but she must be used to hearing that nickname. Everyone called Crane crazy. His passion for finding antiquities was even greater than Stephen's for discovering new plant species. The word at White's was the earl had come to Town—briefly, as it turned out—to fire off his daughter on the Marriage Mart. Stephen frowned. He was drunk, but he wasn't completely disguised. Wasn't this girl too old to be a debutante?
"So you're here to find a husband?" he asked.
Her brows snapped down as her eyes snapped back to his face. "Of course not." She curled her delightful upper lip slightly. "Were you quaking in your boots?"
"Don't have boots." He lifted his foot to show her and almost left his shoe in the quagmire. "And you don't scare me. I've been dodging debutantes for years—though you do seem a little long in the tooth to be just making your bows."
"I am twenty-seven"—it sounded as if she were gritting her teeth—"not that it is any of your business. It is my half sister who is being introduced to the ton."
"Ah!" He nodded. Now he remembered. "You're Crane's older daughter, the one by his first wife. The bluestocking as opposed to the—"
A sliver of sobriety wormed its way into his sodden brain. He coughed.
"As opposed to the beauty." She sounded indifferent, but he saw the hurt in her eyes before she turned abruptly and started walking briskly toward Grosvenor Gate. Even Harry gave him a reproachful look as he left.
Damn. That hadn't been well done of him. He should let her go. She would not want to spend another moment in his presence.
He couldn't let her go. He did not break hearts, nor offend anyone, at least unintentionally. He had to apologize. He took off after her.
Crane's daughter—what was her name? Damned if he could remember. No one at White's had talked much about the bluestocking. She had a long stride, but was hampered by her skirts, and Stephen was used to walking long distances. He caught up to her quickly.
As he feared, she was crying.
"Go away." She wouldn't look at him.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded."
She snorted—and then had to sniff repeatedly. He offered her his handkerchief.
"Thank you." She glared at him briefly, her eyes quite red behind her spectacles.
He took Harry's leash so she could blow her nose, which she did rather defiantly. She stared straight ahead, refusing to meet his gaze.
"And I was not affected in the slightest by your words. Of course not. I merely had a speck in my eye. It is true my sister is a beauty; I have hopes she will have a wonderful Season." She sent him a pointed look then. "She is much too young for you, however."
She looked like an angry kitten, trying to be fierce with its tiny claws and teeth. And he had hurt her feelings; he had sisters; he knew when girls felt wounded.
He felt an odd warmth in his chest. A bout of indigestion, most likely. He'd certainly had too much to drink. Once he saw Lady ... Lady ...
"You never did tell me your name."
She shrugged. "And you never told me yours."
"So I didn't." He inclined his head. "Stephen Parker-Roth, at your service."
"What?" She stumbled on a crack in the pavement. He reached to grab her, but she avoided his hand. "The King of Hearts?"
"Well, yes, some people call me that." He cleared his throat. "I'm rather good—or lucky—with cards."
Cards? Anne sniffed. "It's not cards you're good with."
Damn it, the rogue looked like a blasted choir boy, as sinless as a cherub, but she knew through long association with her half brothers not to trust that mask of innocence. "Oh?" She allowed her skepticism to show in her voice.
Excerpted from The Naked King by Sally MacKenzie Copyright © 2011 by Sally MacKenzie. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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