The Very Daring Duchess

The Very Daring Duchess

5.0 1
by Miranda Jarrett

Escaping the invasion of Napoleon's army, Francesca Robin seeks to flee Italy on an English ship. When Francesca -- an artist whose risqué paintings are much desired by wealthy gentlemen buyers -- learns of Admiral Lord Nelson's decree that no lady may gain passage on an English ship without a husband, she dares to do the unthinkable: find an eligible


Escaping the invasion of Napoleon's army, Francesca Robin seeks to flee Italy on an English ship. When Francesca -- an artist whose risqué paintings are much desired by wealthy gentlemen buyers -- learns of Admiral Lord Nelson's decree that no lady may gain passage on an English ship without a husband, she dares to do the unthinkable: find an eligible English bachelor and marry him at once.

Estranged from his noble family, Captain Lord Edward Ramsden has built a stellar naval career. Proper and upstanding, he shocks himself by impulsively exchanging vows with this forward and flirtatious lady in distress. But in London, their mock marriage is turned upside down when Edward is unexpectedly named a duke -- and Francesca his unlikely duchess -- stunning the genteel ton. Their newfound social status invites danger and scandal -- and now the duke risks all to win the heart of the woman he loves madly -- his bold-spirited duchess.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, Jarrett (Star Bright) spins a formulaic romance between a conservative Naval officer and an exotic arts dealer. After winning a victory against the French army, Captain Edward Ramsden, the unwanted fourth son of the Duke of Harborough, and a fellow officer decide to explore Naples and enjoy its diversions. Their first stop is the illustrious Signora Francesca Robin's studio d'artista, an eclectic museum containing a number of bogus art pieces as well as a large display of lewd paintings. Edward is more intrigued by Francesca's striking appearance and forward manner than her collection, however, and his awareness of her fraudulent dealings doesn't dampen his attraction. When the French army threatens to invade Naples, the Royal Navy prepares to evacuate all English citizens, but Francesca is denied passage because she is half English and half Neapolitan. Fearful of what may happen to Francesca after he departs, Edward volunteers to marry her. The story escalates with the promise of intrigue and sexual tension but, unfortunately, Jarrett packs her tale with maudlin dialogue and clich?d commentary. Although Jarrett's sex scenes are steamy and descriptive, her characters are little more than cardboard. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Pocket Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
4.18(w) x 6.77(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Kingdom of Two Sicilies
November 1798

Heedless of the lurching progress of the hired cart, Captain Lord Edward Ramsden absently traced the gold lacing on the sleeve of his dress uniform coat and thought of all he'd survived since the first of August. For that he could thank Fate, and damn her, too. Even here in Naples, he felt the chilly memory deep in his bones, where not even the bright afternoon sun could warm it away. He'd seen too much blood spilled, heard the screams of too many dying men, for it to be otherwise. His body might have escaped unwounded, but his soul was nearly broken.

He frowned, once again struggling to put the memories behind him, his fingers still tracing the intricate gold braid. He'd already seen to the repairs the Centaur had needed after the battle, completed his reports, and visited the wounded among his crew in the hospital on shore, called upon the ambassador and his wife, and composed letters by the score to be sent back to London. He'd always been thorough that way, taking care of the things he could control in a life so full of uncertainty and risk.

But it still wasn't such a bad showing, even for a fourth son, and gradually Edward's frown relaxed. At thirty he was a captain and commander of a ship of the line in His Majesty's Navy, the youngest of Admiral Horatio Nelson's self-styled "Band of Brothers"; he'd just helped win one of the greatest victories of this war against the French; he was, God forgive him for being honest, even a hero.

Perhaps he was entitled to a small respite, even a bit of out-and-out idle amusement. Considering the dismal way this war was going on land, they could all be ordered back to sea and to battle with tomorrow's tide. Not even Admiral Nelson was devoting every waking hour thinking of ways to confound the French.

All of which was why Edward sat riding in this shabby hired carriage behind a pair of white Neapolitan mules, listening to his old friend Lieutenant Henry Pye babble on about their plans for the rest of the day.

"You can go wherever you please in Naples, Edward," Henry was intoning with a ponderous, wine-induced solemnity. Their midday meal at a water-front taverna had been lengthy, the local marsala splashing freely and often into their glasses. "If your heart's set on gawking at one more broken-down pagan temple, then go. I'll not stop you. Myself, I'm bound for Signora Francesca's most illustrious studio d'artista, and if you've half a drop of red blood left in you, you'll come with me."

"Shall I now," said Edward mildly. He'd known Henry since they'd both been midshipmen in the old Andromache, far too long to take his slander seriously when it was just the two of them, and besides, the tavern's rich, plummy wine had worked its magic on him as well. "So is that what they call a whorehouse in this benighted city? A studio d'artista? I should watch my purse if I were you, Henry. Artistry like that sounds costly."

"Bordellos," said Henry with excruciating patience. "That's what the brothels are called. Bordellos. I've only told you that at least a thousand times, Edward. Not that you care. No whore's fine enough for your tastes, anyway."

"None that I've met, no," agreed Edward. He'd always preferred females who could hold his interest in conversation as well as in bed, a discernment that marked him as a curiosity among his friends. He'd no patience with the tawdry, mercenary women that preyed upon sailors in every port -- the common ones here in Naples had shown their gratitude to the English by giving at least a third of his crew the pox while stealing the purses of the rest -- nor had he any interest himself in privately entertaining the more expensive doxies, the greedy local actresses and opera singers, in his cabin the way other captains did. "Consider it a favor that I've left all the more harlots for you."

"But I say, Edward, Signora Francesca's not some common harlot," insisted Henry. "She's a whole other breed of wickedness."

"There are degrees in Naples?"

"Hell, yes," said Henry righteously. "Signora Francesca's establishment is a family concern, you know, inherited from her late lamented father. I wonder that your brothers never told you of it."

Edward's smile grew guarded, the way it always did when his brothers were mentioned. Younger sons, even the younger sons of dukes, were generally regarded as a burden to their families and a trial to genteel society. As the fourth son of the Duke of Harborough, Edward had understood this truth from the distant time he'd been a tiny boy, barely breeched. There would always be three others between him and the endless bounty and good fortune of being a peer of the realm in the greatest country in Christendom, that most obviously being England in the reign of His Majesty King George III.

It wasn't fair, of course. Edward knew that. Little in life was. Instead of a grand tour across the continent with a tutor and servants, Edward had been sent alone to sea on his tenth birthday, a newly minted, broken-hearted midshipman in His Majesty's Navy. He'd never seen his father again, and he'd never returned home to Winterworth Hall, either. There'd been no reason to, especially not after his father died and George had inherited the title, nor did Edward see reason for explaining any of this now to Henry, the much-loved only son of a baker from Birmingham.

"My brothers and I have never had the pleasure of discussing Naples," he said instead, "let alone something as sordid as this particular young woman."

"But that's the best of it, Edward, leastways for someone as particular as you!" exclaimed Henry, his round, ruddy face glowing with excitement. "The signora's not sordid at all. She's a great beauty, and she's half English."

"One glass of wine, Henry, and they're all beauties to you," said Edward, relieved to be able to shift the conversation away from his family. "Half a bottle, and this woman would be Venus herself."

"I am quite in earnest, Edward, even if you choose to mock me," said Henry, scowling. "The lady is beautiful, in a Latin sort of way. Everyone says so. Even you must remark it. But that's not the reason for calling on her. One goes to Signora Francesca's to view the paintings."

Edward raised his brows with amusement. "Since when did you become such a connoisseur, eh? Must we search your cabin for plundered Titians or Guidos before we sail again?"

"Not paintings like that," said Henry, leaning forward and lowering his voice in eager confidence. "You wouldn't want these paintings hanging in the parlor at home. Not at all! Signora Francesca's paintings are more what you'd have about for, ah, entertainment. For gentlemen. You know, for amusement."

"Henry, I don't see -- "

"Edward, they're lewd," said Henry bluntly. "The paintings, I mean. Like Fanny Hill and Aretino, only in the antique style."

"The signora traffics in wicked pictures?" asked Edward incredulously. Now this sounded diverting indeed. "Your fair young goddess?"

"There you go again, Edward, twisting my words about to make me sound like a damned fool," said Henry with a wounded sniff. "The lewd ones aren't the only ones she has. They say she has more polite pictures, too, along with heaps of other old rubbish for sale, for the Neapolitan ladies who visit her studio. And Lady Hamilton, of course. They say the signora's a special favorite of her ladyship."

Edward made no comment beyond a discouraging shake of his head. Lady Hamilton was an uneasy subject for English officers in Naples, what with their very married admiral so openly enamoured of the equally married wife of the English consul.

But what could this young signora with the peculiar mixture of goods in her studio have to attract a worldly woman like Lady Hamilton? Was the girl herself that clever, that witty, or simply so beautiful that her company would be irresistible to women as well as men? But if that were so, then how could such a winsome creature maintain a business on her own?

Edward frowned again, thinking. He liked reason and logical explanations, and he'd always been fascinated by the puzzles people made of their lives, trying to decipher why and how they chose the paths they did. From Henry's telling alone, this beautiful half-English signora with the obscene pictures was offering more questions than answers, and that was enough to intrigue Edward mightily.

Or at least mightily enough for an afternoon's diversion. Aye, that was what he needed more than anything else, a simple entertainment to help him forget, if only for an hour or two. What more, really, could he want?

The cart lurched to a halt, the driver grinning and sweeping his whip to the right to indicate they'd reached their destination in this crowded, close-packed street. The house was typically Neapolitan, narrow and three stories high, the stucco painted a pale candy-pink with carved, curling flourishes over the door and square windows like swirls of white icing.

In the slanting sunlight, striped curtains fluttered at the open sashes, and even though it was November, lush red flowers still spilled cheerfully from the window boxes. The homely smell of frying onions and fish mingled with the salty, damp air from the sea, and the street echoed with sounds of stray dogs barking and vendors shouting and children shrieking and women gossiping in the accelerated southern Italian that Edward couldn't begin to understand. It was all unabashedly domestic, and not at all the place one would expect to visit to view lewd pictures.

That is, one might not expect it, but Henry certainly did. In a single enthusiastic leap, he'd hurled himself from the cart to the street with the same eagerness that he'd use for boarding an enemy ship, and with another two strides he was up the steps and pounding on the door's heavy iron knocker.

"Subtlety, Henry, subtlety," cautioned Edward as he paid the driver and followed his friend up the steps. "We're here to view the signora's wares, not make a prize of her house."

But the elderly manservant who opened the door to them more than matched Henry's cheerful enthusiasm, his grin wide to make up for his haphazard English as he took their names, then showed them up the staircase to a large parlor that ran the width of the back of the house.

"D'you think this is the signora's studio, eh?" asked Henry hopefully as soon as the maidservant left them alone.

"It's not exactly her kitchen, is it?" With unabashed curiosity, Edward gazed around the cluttered, high-ceilinged room, so different from the cramped but tidy spaces between decks where he lived himself.

The yellow walls were covered with paintings of every sort -- martyred saints, landscapes and sunsets, still lifes of decaying fruit, maudlin little girls clutching kittens -- except, of course, the subjects that Henry was so eager to see. Pale marble statues in familiar classical poses were arranged around the room like unwelcome guests, staring bleakly through blind white eyes at additional disembodied fragments -- an orator's hand, a goddess's sandaled foot, a headless satyr propped in one corner. Black and red painted antique vases were displayed on a green-draped table along with small mosaic medallions and twisted chunks of volcanic rock from nearby Vesuvius. The fragrance of the scarlet flowers at the open windows hung heavily in the warm, sun-filled room.

Cautiously Henry leaned over one of the black-figured vases, keeping his hands clasped tightly behind him like a small boy warned not to touch.

"I say, these aren't exactly wicked," he said, clearly disappointed. "How's a fellow to be interested in a jumble of old pots like this?"

"Perhaps the signora keeps the wicked ones for private viewing," suggested Edward dryly. Although he couldn't claim a true collector's eye, most of the signora's paintings struck him as second-rate at best to out-and-out forgeries at their most obvious worst. Privately he was beginning to doubt that her more lurid wares even existed; it wouldn't be the first time that English gentlemen had exaggerated what they'd seen or done abroad. "For only her most special customers."

"By Jove, then I hope she approves of us," said Henry, anxiously smoothing the front of his dark blue uniform coat. "There, Edward, can you see the spot from the sauce last night?"

"For God's sake, Henry, you look more than well enough. The girl's a wretched shopkeeper, not the queen." Edward sighed, and shook his head over his friend's uncertainty, as if this woman's opinion actually mattered.

Not that he'd never worried like this himself. When he'd been younger, much younger, on leave in London, he and Will -- now the Earl of Bonnington -- had spent any number of hours in any number of elegant parlors, waiting for some young lady or another to deign to show herself. Strange how they'd all blurred together in his memory, those blue-blooded Georgianas and Charlottes with golden hair and angelic smiles, and when he and Will would reminisce about those long-ago girls now, they couldn't begin to sort one from another.

But while Will had been boundlessly full of charm, a great favorite with the ladies of every age, Edward in his awkward, lovesick youth had found those well-bred girls perpetually, achingly unattainable. They still were, really. No matter how many Frenchmen he'd managed to dispatch, even the greatest heroics always paled beside the prospect of a title and the fortune that went with it.

"Ah, buon giorno, good day, good day, my most gallant and deserving of dear gentlemen-heroes!" exclaimed a breathy, feminine voice behind him, followed by some garbled, gulping reply from Henry.

Roused from his memories of the young ladies in London, Edward smiled wryly, thinking of how not one of them would dare greet strange gentlemen with such scandalously warm enthusiasm or with such a lilting, singsong accent, either. He was smiling still as he turned, yet as soon as he did, those sweet-faced young ladies in white muslin were instantly banished by the sight of the signora before him.

She was younger than Edward had expected, no more than twenty-five, her figure round and lush, and if the quality of her paintings had been exaggerated, then the promises of her beauty most certainly had not. Her skin was golden, burnished with rich rose, her eyes as dark and fathomless as midnight, and as full of sensual promise. Her hair was black as well, glossy and gleaming, and parted in the center.

And her dress -- Jesus, he'd never seen a female dressed in such a fashion, a mixture of Turkish fantasy and fancy-dress costume that somehow managed to be alluring and enchanting and completely her own. Her gown was peacock-blue satin looped up over a yellow-striped petticoat, the sleeves trimmed with brown fur cuffs and the bodice cut low over a sheer linen shift embroidered with scarlet silk. She'd wrapped another length of striped silk into a turban and pinned it into place on the back of her head with a black plume and a garnet brooch, and from her ears she wore large swinging gold hoops strung with single pearls.

Everything about her seemed to shimmer and glow as she walked, emphasizing the curves of her body and the warmth of her smile, and it took every bit of Edward's well-practiced reserve not to gawk outright. It didn't matter that the paintings and sculpture in her studio were trumped-up trash; she was the one true work of art, and a most rare -- and likely most costly -- one at that.

"Lieutenant Pye, is it not?" she was saying breathlessly as she curtseyed before poor dithering Henry, granting him a stupefying view of her bosom in the process. "How honored -- most genuinely honored! -- I am to have you grace my little studio! For what your brave navy has done to save this kingdom, to fight back those evil French and their hideous republic -- why, whatever you wish, dear Lieutenant Pye, whatever you crave, is yours, yours!"

It was humbug and nonsense, every last pretty word. Edward could see that at once. She didn't have the slightest intention of giving away one broken-down saint. She wouldn't have to, either, because Henry was already reaching for his purse, so besotted that he'd gladly give her double whatever she tried to refuse. The more she fluttered and blushed and praised his gallantry, the more Henry would be willing to pay, and it wouldn't be until later, when he'd found himself in the street with some bastardized portrait of Aphrodite and an empty pocket to show for it, that he might -- might -- begin to realize what had happened to him.

Not, of course, that Edward had any intention of letting that happen. That was part of the reason he'd agreed to come with Henry in the first place, to keep him from mischief. This girl might be the most enchanting female ever put on this earth to bedevil honest men, but he'd extricated Henry from worse disasters in the name of friendship and for the good of the service.

"Good day, ma'am," he began, purposefully keeping his voice stern and his bow as perfunctory as possible. "I am Captain Lord Edward Ramsden. Your servant, ma'am."

"Oh, my lord captain, I am the one who must serve you!" She smiled brilliantly and tipped her head to one side as she spread her satin skirts and dropped him a curtsey, flattering him with the same charm that had worked so well with Henry. "An English lord in my humble little home! How my dear, late Papa would have loved to live for such a great day!"

"Indeed," answered Edward with another cursory bow. "And how proud, too, he would have been to see his daughter engaged in so thriving an establishment."

She flushed, his meaning all too plain, and Edward almost regretted the pointedness his words. No respectable Englishwoman would wish her home referred to in such a way, no matter if it were true.

But still she held her ground. "Indeed he would," she answered, her ear-bobs swinging against her cheeks. "Though Papa passed most of his life here in Naples, he never forgot his English home, or put aside his loyalty to his English sovereign."

With a graceful sweep of her hand she gestured toward an engraving of King George and his Queen Charlotte. Cynically Edward wondered how long the British king and queen had actually hung there -- since Lady Hamilton's first visit, perhaps, or only after the English fleet had sailed into Naples to refit earlier this autumn?

"If dear Papa could but see me here now," she continued, somehow contriving to bring the brightness of genuine tears to her eyes, "in conversation with a gentleman who is next to royalty himself, the son of an English duke!"

"Only a fourth son, ma'am," said Edward, wondering if she kept a copy of the peerage in another chamber for assessing her customers. "A powerfully long step from royalty. Far better you should honor how I serve His Majesty as a captain in his navy."

She nodded in silent agreement. But there was a new interest in her eyes as she appraised him again, an expression that, in an odd way, put Edward more on his guard than before. He didn't trust cleverness in a woman, especially when it came coupled with beauty. At least now he could understand Lady Hamilton's affection for her: they were much of a piece, two low-born, quick-witted women who weren't above using coquetry and a pretty face to get what they wished.

"Here now, signora, here," asked Henry importantly, clutching a small stone Cupid in his arms. "I'd wager my sister in Brighton would fancy such a gewgaw in her garden, there among the hollyhocks. What's he cost, eh?"

"This little fellow?" she asked, fondly running her fingertip along the statue's nose, and not-quite-accidentally brushing her plump, bare forearm over Henry's hand. "He's very old, you know, very ancient, at least from the time of the Caesars. But would your sister welcome the mischief such a statue would bring with him? Cupid is Venus's little son, you know, and given to making us mortals fall into love most inconveniently."

She smiled coyly, and Henry grinned back, as ripe and simple a moon-calf as Edward had ever seen.

"Give me that infernal thing, Henry," he ordered sharply, wresting the Cupid from his friend's arms. "Before you hand over your gold, use your eyes instead of your -- well, use your eyes, damn it. This statue is no more from ancient Rome than you are yourself. Mark how these stains in the marble look like someone's spilled tea on it, trying to make it seem old. And here, see how clean these chisel-nicks are in the stone. Wouldn't you think they'd have worn down a bit in, oh, the last thousand years or so?"

Henry scowled down at the fat-cheeked Cupid, then up at Edward. "What are you truly saying, Edward?" he demanded petulantly. "That I'm a right royal jackass? That I haven't your high-born eyes for art? That the signora here is lying?"

Edward sighed with exasperation, and awkwardly shifted the offending Cupid to his other arm, where its stone wing wouldn't poke him. "What I'm saying is that perhaps you're, ah, confused. Aye, confused. And so's the signora."

The signora smiled with surpassing sweetness, turning her face upward to Edward as if fair begging to be kissed in the most innocently cunning way imaginable.

"An English ship captain who is also a connoisseur, a scholar," she purred. "Che miracolo, how I do marvel at your great gifts, my lord!"

"I make no such claims, ma'am," he said as brusquely as he could, wishing she would keep to English. It was taxing enough to concentrate on the nodding plume of her turban instead of the myriad of temptations offered lower down on her person. "But I do know I've seen this exact same statue in the garden of the British ambassador's palazzo last week. What are the odds of there being two such here in Naples, eh?"

"Oh, my lord!" she gasped, her hand arching over her breasts with an undeniable emphasis. "To think that a great scholar such as the ambassador has been taken in by a counterfeit!"

"Damnation, that's not what I'm saying at all!" exclaimed Edward with mushrooming frustration. "What I'm saying, ma'am, what I'm trying to say, is that -- "

"Is that this Cupid and the one in the ambassador's garden are both the work of the same master carver." She laughed merrily, and Edward had the uncomfortable feeling that, for the first time since she'd entered the room, her smile was genuine.

What had happened to his logic, his reasonable explanation? What had happened to his control of this situation?

"Signora Francesca," he said as sternly as he could. "You misconstrue my words, ma'am."

"Oh, I rather think not." Gently she took the statue from him, cradling it in her arms as if it were a real baby with its stone eyes turned adoringly up toward her. "I beg you to remember that you are in Naples, my lord, and that here anything -- anything! -- is possible."

Edward frowned, the sort of black-thunder frown that would have set his crew scurrying to obey.

"Perhaps," he answered, more of a growl, "that is why your King Ferdinando has gotten himself into such an infernal kettle of hot water. If his majesty had relied more on sound judgment and less upon wishful possibilities, then perhaps you Neapolitans, ma'am, would not be relying so heavily upon us English to rescue you from the coals now."

"Perhaps that might be true, my lord," she said, openly mimicking him. "But you see, since I am an English lady as well as a Neapolitan one, a tidy half of each through my parents, then I can claim both wishfulness and judgment, whichever serves me the better. A wise woman must always weigh and consider her options, my lord."

Righteousness welled up inside Edward. Francesca Robin was most certainly not English, nor by anyone's lights could she be considered a lady. Options, indeed. As soon as Napoleon's army appeared, likely she'd recall a grandfather who'd stormed the Bastille and change her name to Françoise. If this was the sort of twin-faced deceit he and his men were offering their lives to defend, then he'd just as soon open the city's gates to the French himself and be done with it.

"Your dubious patriotism, ma'am," he began, "is not what I wish to -- "

"Hold now, Edward, and leave off the poor lady," interrupted Henry gallantly. "I came here to see the pictures, not listen to you insult her."

Instantly Edward swung around to face Henry. For the sake of friendship, he would overlook the difference in their ranks when the two of them were alone together, but not before this wretched girl, and not for her sake, either.

"You forget yourself, Lieutenant," he said curtly, and at once Henry straightened to attention.

"Aye, aye, sir," he said, his shoulders back and his eyes forward, the camaraderie that they'd shared earlier with the wine shattered to bits. "I forgot myself, sir."

Silently Edward cursed himself for squabbling with Henry. A chit of a girl, three bottles of wine, and two men who should know better: could there be a worse combination?

"We've tarried here long enough, Lieutenant Pye," he said gruffly. "High time we returned to the ship."

"Pray tarry a moment longer, per favore, lieutenant," said the young woman softly, settling the Cupid into Henry's arms. "You would not wish to leave without this."

Edward's frown deepened. Damnation, did the girl have no shame at all? "I do not believe we shall be making any purchases today, ma'am."

"But I am making a gift of the Cupid to the lieutenant, my lord captain," she murmured sweetly. "Because the lieutenant fancied it, my lord, I'm offering it to him in return for his service to our little kingdom."

Somehow she was managing to make her expression as meek as the women who gathered each morning on the steps of the cathedral before mass, her head bowed and her eyes full of worshipful thanks. A low actress's trick, Edward told himself sternly, but that still didn't keep him from feeling like an overbearing, ungrateful ass.

Blast her for doing this to him!

"Lieutenant Pye doesn't want the statue," he said, his voice more defensive than he could have wished. "He came here to see your infernal pictures."

Her eyes widened with disingenuous surprise. She was as bright and ever-changing as quicksilver, this girl, and as damned elusive, too. "My pictures, my lord? But my pictures are all around us!"

"The special ones, signora," he said impatiently. "The paintings that you've shown to the other English gentlemen."

"Ahhh," she said, nodding. "My father's paintings. His series entitled the Oculus Amorandi."

"Eh?" asked Henry, mystified. "The eye what?"

"The Eye on Loving," said Edward. "Rather like the eye of a peeping Tom at the window, I would wager."

"But done in the most scholarly and correct manner after the discovery of a brothel in Pompeii," she said promptly. "Done directly from the wall paintings that portray the most scandalous diversions of the pagan ancients."

"Aye, aye, those paintings," said Henry eagerly. "The wicked ones."

But the signora only sighed, spreading her hands and shrugging with dramatic Neapolitan resignation. "Alas, alas, dearest sirs, I cannot show them to you, no matter how much I wished it."

Edward allowed himself the slightest of smiles. So the pictures truly didn't exist, the way he'd always suspected. Perhaps Signora Francesca wasn't so very hard to pin down after all.

"No, signora?" he asked lightly. "And pray, why ever not?"

She turned the shrug into a graceful half-turn, her skirts shushing so distractingly around her ankles that Edward nearly forgot what he'd asked in the first place.

"These are such unsettled times, my lord," she explained, "uneasy times that make the hair prickle on the back of a dog's neck. The censors from the royal court have visited me -- oh, such unpleasant men! -- and forbidden me to display -- "

"Censors?" interrupted Edward incredulously. While the Neapolitan court was one of the last to survive Napoleon's Republican army, it was also one of the most louche, corruptly Bourbon to the center of its licentious heart. "If there is one ruler in all Europe that keeps no censors for decency, it must be your King Ferdinando. They say the man has so many bastards by so many mistresses he's lost count himself!"

She shrugged again, the golden afternoon sunlight sliding over the skin of her shoulders, not at all scandalized that he'd speak so freely before her.

"I will acknowledge that His Majesty is the most fortunate parent of fourteen children with Queen Maria Carolina," she said coyly. "As for the others -- ah, my lord, you must remember that this is a very different place than your London. Who knows what may happen here tomorrow, the next day, or the next?"

"Meaning that if Lieutenant Pye and I were to return here upon another day, you would produce your father's old Oculus for our amusement?"

"Who can say for certain, my lord?" the girl answered, her words as insubstantial as a sigh. "But if you return to honor me again on another pretty afternoon, perhaps, perhaps, I will be able to grant what you...wish."

She smiled then, that same charming, clever, conspirator's smile that Edward had found at once so unsettling and so beguiling. It didn't matter that Henry was standing there beside him with the wretched Cupid still clutched in his arms. The air in the studio felt close and velvety soft, the scent from the scarlet flowers heady with the temptation that seemed an inescapable part of Naples, and as natural to this girl as breathing itself.

She was challenging him, teasing him, daring him, and Edward would wager fifty guineas that it wasn't just a hackneyed old statue at stake, either. He recognized the signs well enough: The aristocratic mamas and daughters in London might disdain him, but he'd be a golden prize to a saucy little adventuress like this one. If he accepted the signora's challenge and whatever she was offering with that smile, he'd be soundly congratulated for his good fortune by every one of his friends and fellow officers. Not one man in his acquaintance would fault him.

Not one, that is, except himself.

He'd come here this afternoon for diversion, that was all, and to keep hapless Henry from mischief. He no more sought a mistress than he wanted to buy her ancient rubbish. If he encouraged her, he'd be the same as any other common sailor frolicking with his harlot. The only difference would be the cost.

He straightened his shoulders, shaking off the final mazy effects of the wine, and motioned to the manservant hovering by the doorway for his hat. The last thing he needed to complicate his life was a woman, especially one who was this charming, this clever, this seductively beautiful.

And no matter what she claimed, she wasn't English.

She most decidedly wasn't a lady, either.

"Remember, my lord," she said, still teasing him with her smile. "In Naples, anything is possible."

"Perhaps for you, signora, because you were born here," he said curtly as he took his hat, "but not for an Englishman like me. Good day, ma'am."

And then, being a gentleman of his word, he promptly left.

Copyright © 2001 by Miranda Jarrett

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The Very Daring Duchess 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1798 Naples, English sea Captain Edward Winterworth meets Naples Signora Francesca Robin at her art gallery. They are immediately attracted to one another, but Edward acts nasty and somewhat aloof towards her believing she is just another local con artist scamming His Majesty¿s sailors.

When Napoleon threatens Naples, the English fleet decides to evacuate the area. A half-English person like Francesca is in jeopardy if she remains behind when the French arrive. She knows she must leave Naples immediately, but Admiral Nelson refuses to take her with the Navy, ignoring even Lady Hamilton¿s plea. Edward volunteers to marry her so she can accompany him. Desperate, she accepts and once married they seem happy together until the Admiralty summons Edward back to London. There he learns that he now is a Duke and no longer part of the Navy because his aristocratic rank requires him kept safe. A frightened Francesca runs away feeling inadequate to be the wife on a noble, leaving it to Edward to prove he loves her and needs her by his side.

Miranda Jarrett is known for her historical romances especially those set in the Colonial, Georgian, and Regency periods. Her latest tale THE VERY DARING DUCHESS centers on a typical Regency theme starring two likable lead characters. However, the descriptions of Naples right before Napoleon provides a rare freshness and depth that turns this into a strong Regency romance that any fan of a historical tale will fully cherish.

Harriet Klausner