Daisy Bumgarten isn’t thrilled to be trying to catch a duke’s attention while dressed like a flower pot caught in a swarm of butterflies. But, after all, when in Rome (or in this case London society) . . . . Since her decidedly disastrous debut among New York’s privileged set, the sassy Nevada spitfire’s last chance to “marry well” lies across the pond, here in England. If she must restrain her free spirit, not to mention her rib cage, so be it. She knows she owes it to her three younger sisters to succeed . . .
Now, under a countess’s tutelage, Daisy appears the perfect duchess-in-training . . . Until notorious ladies’ man Lord Ashton Graham, a distraction of the most dangerous kind, glimpses her mischievous smile and feisty nature—and attempts to unmask her motives. Daisy has encountered snakes on the range, but one dressed to the nines in an English drawing room is positively unnerving—and maddeningly seductive. When a veiled plot emerges to show up Daisy as unworthy of the aristocracy, will Ashton be her worst detractor? Or the nobleman she needs most of all?
Praise for Betina Krahn
“Krahn has a delightful, smart touch.” —Publishers Weekly
“Smart, romantic . . . sure to delight readers.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Betina Krahn is a treasure.” —BookPage
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London, two years later
"You don't have to do this, girl," Uncle Red said as they paused on the front steps of the Earl of Mountjoy's palatial London home.
"Yes, I do." Daisy struggled for breath against her wickedly tight corset. She had worked fervently for the last two years to come to this moment. A little suffocation and a few spots before her eyes were a small price to pay for climbing onto the social register. A girl had obligations, after all — sisters to marry off and a mother with badly bruised pride.
This was going to make everything she had done wrong, right. She was going to marry a nobleman — a top nobleman — and take him home and watch Mrs. Astor choke on "that Bumgarten tart's" good fortune. Assuming, of course, that she survived the night in this damned corset.
"You want a nip to brace you up?" Uncle Red patted the conspicuous bulge in the breast pocket of his coat. His concern was downright sweet, considering his own duress ... being stone-cold sober and stuffed into a cutaway with a starched collar that was choking him senseless. But if anyone could sympathize with a body it would be Redmond Strait. Her blustery, ruddy-faced uncle had a sentimental streak about as wide as the massive silver vein he'd discovered in Nevada.
"I'm fine, Uncle Red. Truly." She lied through her teeth; she could really use a nip just now. "Couldn't be better. My feet are positively itching for a dance."
Red sighed at her determined expression and took her at her word. The minute they handed over their invitation to the liveried footman, he smacked his mouth thirstily and struck off in search of the nearest punch bowl.
Daisy paused at the bottom of the great expanse of marble steps leading up to the ballroom, dreading the climb in an elaborate gown that had to weigh fifty pounds and made her look like she'd been caught in a florist shop explosion. Silk flowers were stitched to embroidered vines running riot over her narrow satin bodice and half bare shoulders — not to mention those absurd butterflies the countess had insisted on plastering all over her. She looked down at her waist, grabbed an eye-catching blue insect, and tugged until the threads that held it gave with a pop.
With a fierce sense of satisfaction, she gathered her skirts to proceed, but then someone clutched her elbow.
"Come with me, Miss Bumgarten." Lady Evelyn Hargrave, Countess of Kew — Daisy's sponsor and guide on her matrimonial quest — had eyes narrowed to slits and lips frozen into an icy smile. The force she used in spiriting her protégée out of public view told Daisy she was in trouble.
The countess ushered her down a long hallway and into a dimly lighted room filled with stuffed bookcases, heavy leather furnishings, and the smell of old cigars. As the door closed, the countess turned on her.
"Where in Heaven's name are your gloves?"
Daisy sighed and produced lengths of limp kidskin from the folds of her dress. She was in for it. The English were obsessed with gloves, wore them morning, noon, and night — sometimes ate in the damned things.
"I believe I have made myself perfectly clear on this matter." The countess yanked them from her and smoothed the wrinkles caused by her moist hands. "Ladies never appear in public without gloves."
"They make my arms feel like sausages," Daisy said as the countess held one out for her to insert her hand.
"They wouldn't if you —" The countess bit off the rest, but Daisy finished the comment in her head: didn't have such unladylike arms. She couldn't help it that her body had what old Chuck Worth in Paris had called "a remarkably physical aspect." She'd spent much of her life wrangling horses, carrying saddles, and hefting bales of hay back at her home in Nevada, and three years of city living in New York before she headed to Paris and London hadn't been enough to soften all of her contours.
The countess struggled with the row of tiny leather-covered buttons, paused suddenly, and looked up with splotches blooming in her cheeks.
"Where are your butterflies?"
"I felt silly in them, so I — I —"
Daisy opened her other hand to reveal the squished blue silk. The countess's mouth opened and worked, but produced only a gurgle. Daisy wondered if she were strangling on her own juices.
There's a thought.
"We paid a small fortune to have those hand painted to resemble rare and exotic specimens." The countess snatched the faux insect and tried to restore it, then stopped dead. "There are supposed to be two in your coiffure and two more at your shoulder. What the devil did you do with them?"
Daisy wished the woman would just come out with a good, old-fashioned "hell's fire" or "damnation" and get it off her chest. Her blanches of disappointment were far too much like Daisy's long-suffering mother's. With a huff, she opened her reticule to reveal the four crumpled butterflies she had removed on the way to the ball.
The countess closed her eyes briefly and looked as if someone were lighting a pyre around her feet.
"You have engaged me to assist you in your quest, Miss Bumgarten. I cannot do so if you refuse to follow my advice." She drew back irritably. "I shall be waiting by the stairs to accompany you, should you decide to cooperate."
Daisy watched the door close and then glowered at the gloves and butterflies.
"I'm a grown woman." She tossed her reticule onto a nearby chair and started to button the wretched accessory. "I shouldn't have to walk around frumped up like a goddamned flowerpot!"
"I agree." Deep male tones startled her.
She clasped a hand over her racing heart and looked around to find the top of a head sticking up behind the back of a sofa.
"What are you doing there?" she demanded.
"Escaping a certain young lady's irate mother. At least, I was before you and your governess barged in."
"The countess is not my governess." Daisy drew herself up with true indignation. "Eavesdropping is — you might have had the decency to say something, announce your presence."
"And miss such a fascinating conversation?" A face wearing a wince appeared. "Oh. I see what you mean about the flowerpot."
He began to rise. And rise. Daisy found herself watching a tall, broad-shouldered man unfold from the sofa ... longish hair, arresting face, elegant evening clothes that sat casually on a leanly muscled frame. What she could see in the dim light gave her a very bad feeling. Well, not so much bad as wicked, the kind that started just behind her navel and curled upward and downward into alarmingly excitable territory.
With a flush, she jerked her gaze back to her glove buttons and tried to concentrate on stuffing the buttons through the loops. But he moved around the sofa toward her and she soon found herself looking up ... and up ... and up. He came to a stop barely an arm's length away, and she took a half step back.
He was tall and dark and — her heart tripped over the obvious — handsome. His face was framed on strong, patrician bones; he had a long, straight English nose; and his curved mouth bore a decidedly sensual cast.
"I agree with you, by the by. The butterflies look theatrical."
Tall, dark, and clever.
In other words, trouble. She groaned privately. Men who eavesdropped and commented boldly on a lady's appearance had no scruples. Much less what the Brits called "proper sensibilities." Men like him believed that rules were made for other people.
When he reached for her hand and began to fasten her glove, she felt a tingle in places she wasn't supposed to know that ladies possessed. She tried to withdraw her hand, but he held it fast.
"It's almost impossible to do these one handed." He slid buttons through loops with long, expert fingers. She glanced up and away, but not before she caught the way his dark hair lay in smooth, feathered layers. No sticky pomade there. Nothing but soft, silky — She shook herself mentally, refusing to listen to the siren call of her own wayward impulses. She had come to England to marry a duke, and marry one she would. If it killed her.
Why, then, was she allowing this cad — the British equivalent of a "varmint" — to behave so presumptuously? Another of the Brits' favorite words: "presumptuous." The Brits were a wordy bunch.
"I believe I can manage the rest on my own," she said, yanking her hand back and refusing to look at him again.
He took a step back, spread his coat to prop his hands on his waist, and watched as she smoothed the glove and fumbled with the buttons.
"You're American," he said, and she could tell from his voice he was smiling, probably the same superior expression she'd seen on so many English aristocrats. "But not from Boston."
"Thank God," she said from between clenched teeth. The damned buttons were putting up a fight. "Nevada. That's out west."
"I know where it is," he said. "Next to California."
"Give the man a prize," she said irritably, regretting it the minute the retort left her lips. But he just laughed in low, mesmerizing tones that made her bones and determination both soften.
"At that rate, you'll be here until the closing dance." He brushed aside her resistance to finish her buttons. This time she looked up, which turned out to be a bad idea. He had long, dark lashes that she could almost feel against her skin. "If I'm not mistaken, that is a Charles Worth gown."
"Not his usual work." One eyebrow rose.
"It was made specially for this ball."
"I imagine so. The duke is known to be a nature lover."
She reddened. He knew exactly the point of her having bought and worn such an extravagant dress and was far too amused by it to suit her.
"So am I," she said defiantly. "I love flowers. And butterflies."
"Ah, yes. The butterflies. In your hair, were they?"
As the last button was fastened, she jerked her arm back and looked around for a mirror. The best she could do was a dark picture under glass that allowed her to see her reflection. She carried her reticule to the console below the picture, where she managed to settle two butterflies back into her hair and wrap the dangling threads of a third around some seed pearls in the flowers at her shoulder. She must have groaned aloud, because her fashion critic laughed. When she looked up, he stood nearby with a gold stickpin in hand.
"Try this." His grin raised both hackles and gooseflesh.
"I couldn't possibly." She dropped her gaze and found the butterfly she'd applied hanging to one side, as if it had expired from the indignity of having to appear on that dog's dinner of a dress.
"Well, I could," he said, taking the butterflies from her and stabbing both through with the stickpin. She watched in disbelief as he pulled out the shoulder of her bodice, jabbed the pin through a flower, and threaded it through from behind.
When the butterflies were secured, his hand remained in audacious contact with her liberally exposed skin. He ran the backs of his knuckles slowly around the neckline of her bodice. She froze; unable to protest, unable to even swallow as he reached the exposed top of her left breast and paused, stroking, sensitizing that all too susceptible flesh.
She raised her chin to tell him just how vile his behavior was, but he was leaning close enough for her gaze to get caught in the hot bronze disks of his eyes ... worldly eyes that advertised understanding of a woman's deepest desires and the promise of pleasures well practiced and perfected. Unfortunately, there was more as well: humor, intelligence, and a piqued bit of sensual curiosity. A deep tremor of interest rocked her, awakening nerves and raising an alarm.
She should be kicking him like a Missouri mule, should be giving him a painful lesson in how American girls dealt with "bounders." But, truth be told — tall, dark men with bad intentions had always been her weakness, and he was taller and darker than most, and from what she could tell, his intentions were spectacularly bad. Right now every muscle in her body was taut with expectation and her lips ached for contact of a sort she'd sworn to forgo until she had spoken respectable vows.
"There," he said with a wry smile, lowering his hand. "If you can overlook the fact that those two appear to be mating, you'll be fine."
"Mating?" Her eyes flew wide as she realized what he'd done. "You, you —" She caught herself before she uttered a curse and drew a fiercely controlled breath instead. "What is her name? This mama you slunk in here like a polecat to avoid."
His grin dimmed and he paused a moment, studying her. She had caught him off-guard.
"A gentleman does not discuss the ladies in his life."
"Is that so?" she said, lifting her chin as she headed for the door. "Well, I'm sure I'll recognize her when I see her. She'll be the one with the shotgun" — she raked him with a look — "and the horse-faced daughter."
Ashton Graham, second son of the fifth Duke of Meridian, watched the tart-tongued American exit the earl's study and grinned. Worth gowns and the Countess of Kew as a sponsor; whoever she was, she'd spent a bundle to attract his brother's eye. Poor thing, thinking that Arthur could be swayed by satiny curves and a calculated show of bosoms. Even magnificent bosoms. His knuckles tingled where they had stroked her breast. To his knowledge his brother, the sixth Duke of Meridian, had never shown the slightest interest in the females of his own species.
However, the American with the big, bold eyes and exquisite skin could be the first. Wit, beauty, experience; she was no greensick tyro. And, clever chit, she was probably on to something with those butterflies. His brother was obsessed with the things — all manner of six-legged beasties, in fact. Artie was quite the devoted naturalist and collector.
Ashton checked his appearance in the same picture the Nevada girl had used as a mirror. As he straightened his tie, his gaze landed on a swatch of blue caught between the wall and the rear of the console table. It was an ornate silk butterfly that looked the worse for wear.
The thing was the exact color of those patch-of-sky eyes that had registered anticipation at his touch and suggested a deliciously inappropriate knowledge of the pleasures it promised. With a quiver of anticipation he tucked it into his lapel and promised himself he would see that luscious little American again.
Halfway up the stairs to the busy ballroom, Ashton spotted his uncle, Lord Bertram Graham, headed straight for him. He glanced frantically around, but in the middle of the staircase there was no hope of escape. The old man seized his arm with a "my-dear-dear-boy" and hauled him up the steps and through the upstairs hallway to a private sitting room.
Ashton groaned quietly as he stepped inside and found himself facing a contingent of half a dozen family elders, headed by his father's formidable elder sister, Lady Sylvia Graham Upshaw. There was trouble. He could see it in their razor-sharp stares.
He approached Aunt Sylvia first. She wore full mourning black with demi-veil and mantilla, despite the fact that her husband had been dead the better part of thirty years. Her hand, properly gloved though it was, felt as cold as a corpse's bum cheek. The old girl sucked the warmth and vitality out of everything unfortunate enough to fall in her vicinity.
"My dear aunt." He prayed the tension that made his jaw clench would pass for upper-crust diction. "You look the very picture of health."
"Whereas you look the very picture of profligacy," the old girl said, causing the hoary heads at her back to exchange nods of agreement.
Ashton braced, scrambling to think which of his peccadilloes had landed him in the court of family opinion this time.
"I take it I am in trouble," he said, aiming his most beguiling smile at the old aunts. Two responded with furtive delight, while Aunt Sylvia hiked one side of her nose as if she'd detected something sulfurous.
"What you are in, is luck," she declared. "You have a chance to be useful to the family for a change. We have finally found a task that will employ your natural proclivities to the family's advantage."
That gave him a moment's pause. His natural proclivities? According to them, all he was good at was high living and moral scandal.
"I don't believe I understand," he said, truly puzzled. The family must really be in trouble if they were calling on him for help. Pedigree and finance were hardly his long suits, and the desiccated old gourds that shepherded the family fortunes cared little for anything else.
Excerpted from "A Good Day to Marry a Dukec"
Copyright © 2017 Betina Krahn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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