Rafe Audley lives to thwart his father, the Duke of Bentley. The ne’er do well who abandoned his children claims he wants to make up for his failures, but Rafe only cares about protecting the people of his mining community and providing for his three siblings, who've been his sole responsibility since childhood. So far, Rafe has turned away the duke's man of affairs, solicitor, and other interlopers, until the clever duke sends the unlikeliest of people to convince Rafe to join English High Society—a bold and intriguing woman.
Edwina Dalrymple has never failed a charge. She's quite adept at successfully transforming young women of the gentry and daughters of newly minted lords to take their place in society. Taming a bastard son of a duke will be child's play, plus this job promises to enhance her reputation within the ton. All she has to do is fetch the wayward Rafe and groom him to be presentable to Polite Society.
As the tenacious teacher and her domineering, stubborn, refuses-to-be-taught pupil engage in a fiery battle of wills, their chemistry ignites and the true lesson becomes clear: opposites attract and hearts must be heard.
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In the many years she'd been working as an instructor in etiquette, Miss Edwina Dalrymple had advised everyone from the daughters of powerful members of the gentry to the daughters of obscenely wealthy merchants.
She'd taught women who'd not so much as attempted a curtsy in their life the intricate and essential motions they required among the previously unfamiliar Polite Society.
She'd written articles offering advice to young women new to the ton.
She'd even written-although not sold so very many copies of-a manual with her instructions and advice meticulously laid out.
In all the time she'd worked in her respective position. however, she'd never entertained . . . a duke and duchess.
Though, in fairness, there wasn't an overabundance of those highest of peers below a prince.
Even if there had been, however, they'd certainly never sought to enlist her services.
Or they hadn't before now.
At that very moment, the Duke and Duchess of Bentley stared across Edwina's modest chestnut table. Etched upon their faces were matched expressions of austere confidence and regal power. It was a skill they'd likely perfected in their respective nurseries, and one Edwina had schooled countless students on. And the duke and duchess also represented the closest Edwina had ever found herself to the dream she'd long carried of working among their vaunted ranks.
Ten years. It had been ten years, nearly to the date, that she'd secured herself references that would set her on a course to be the most sought-after and, more importantly, most respected governess.
Folding her hands neatly before her, Edwina opted to train her focus on the Duke of Bentley. "You would like me to instruct your child." Because, really, the matter of that out-of-the-blue request required clarification. A duke and duchess seeking her services Such an outrageous impossibility, one she'd only ever carried in her dreams. She discreetly pinched her thigh.
No, she was most definitely awake.
The duke nodded. "That is correct. However, he is not a . . . child in the traditional . . . sense."
Edwina sat up straighter on the upholstered armchair and waited for him to say more. "Your Grace?" she asked, seeking clarification.
The duchess silenced her husband with a single look, the manner of which Edwina had used sparingly, and only with her most recalcitrant charges, in order to preserve its effectiveness.
And wonder of wonders, it appeared even dukes could be tamed.
The just-graying gentleman adjusted his cravat and sat back in the sofa he occupied alongside his wife.
For the first time since she'd arrived and the duke had stated his intentions to hire Edwina, the duchess took command of the meeting. "We've come to enlist your services, Miss Dalrymple," Her Grace intoned. "And I gather, from your . . . response, you are wondering why we've requested you specifically." The gentleness in the duchess's tone kept that question from being an insult.
The duke frowned at his wife. "We do not mean to offend you . . ."
His wife gave him another look, this one a wry smile that proved just as effective in silencing him. "By everything I've read to you about her, the woman is clever enough to know. She knows that we're aware she's never had a patron among the peerage."
"That is correct," Edwina murmured, appreciating that directness and honesty. People of their station did not solicit her help. Unless they had to. "I have never had a client who was born to the peerage." Once that truth had stung. Edwina, however, in time, and with her work, had come to appreciate her lot for what it was-outside the sphere of the ruling elite. Despite the fact she'd been working her way to establish a place among them from the start. "As such, I must confess to . . . some surprise." And elation. Under her hem, Edwina danced her slippered feet about in a quiet, unseen celebration.
"We may not have had much success with previous instructors," the duke volunteered, and by the chastising look shot his way by his wife, too honestly this time.
Ah, he was desperate, then, and the duchess was determined to reveal no vulnerability. It mattered not. This represented her chance to prove to her father that she was completely capable of moving among his equals. And perhaps . . . even then, earn, if not his love, respect.
"She is going to have to know something of it," the duke said.
Edwina's intrigue redoubled.
And the older woman might have whispered something that sounded very much like, "You're the one responsible for your actions, dear heart."
Had they been attempting to rouse her intrigue, they couldn't have done any better than they were with their sotto voce exchange.
The duke slumped in his chair, giving him the look of a naughty charge. "Get on with it, then."
They were a fascinating, if peculiar, pair. One that fit not at all with the image society pedaled of dukes and duchesses, and yet, mayhap it was that elevated rank that allowed them that freedom of expression.
Her Grace looked to Edwina. "Until recently . . . very recently, His Grace had something of a . . . reputation."
"Most gentlemen do," Edwina said pragmatically. It didn't make it right, or anything she wished for her charges' future, but it did make it accepted by Polite Society.
"Not like this, Miss Dalrymple. Not. Like. This," the Duchess of Bentley said.
"She hardly requires all the details," the duke muttered.
His wife cupped a palm around her mouth, concealing it from her husband. "He was quite the rogue, really."
Again, most men were.
"I hear you, dear," he groused.
His wife, however, wasn't done with him. "In your mind you have likely conjured rogues and rakes and scoundrels, Miss Dalrymple. My husband would have put them all to shame with the depth of his depravity."
Edwina's mouth moved, but no words came out.
"How many other governesses have you come to before approaching me?" she asked, curious.
"Does it matter either way for our discussion?" the duchess returned.
Edwina considered that question a moment. "No," she allowed. "I suppose it does not." Only in the sense that it would provide her an indication of just how difficult an assignment she was taking on. Nor could there be any doubting or disputing that she was taking it regardless. This represented her first, and perhaps only, chance to gain entry into a clientele previously beyond her grasp.
"As I was saying, we've attempted to enlist the services of others. But governess after governess has refused us. First for the reason of my husband's past as a rogue"-and his not-too-distant one, at that-"and then, there is, of course, the matter of his children."
"She doesn't require details, dear heart," the duke mumbled, a blush on his cheeks. He wrestled with his cravat.
His Grace needn't have even bothered wasting his breath. The duchess would not be silenced. "Until our marriage, just six months ago." The stunningly regal woman leaned forward. "I assure you, my dear, had we been married some years earlier, the duke would not find himself in the very predicament he does now." And in a very unduchesslike way, she winked.
And perhaps it was that unexpected realness from the woman that compelled Edwina to ask her next question. "What exactly is the predicament you speak of?"
"His reputation has been so terribly damaged that the governesses most highly recommended by our peers, well-"
"Won't work for me," the duke said, the color deepening on his cheeks. "I'm not nearly as bad as society has made me out to be."
His wife lifted an eyebrow in his direction.
"Anymore," he allowed. "It was my youth. My distant youth," he added. "Alas, the reputation . . . stuck."
At last, all the pieces of the puzzle were in their proper place, and the reason a duke and duchess wished to hire Edwina made sense. They'd not sought her out because they wished for her services. They'd sought her out because there was no one else who'd take on the assignment. Either way, her pride wasn't fragile; her determination to work among the peerage was far stronger.
His wife nodded. "Precisely. My husband has been making an attempt at a new beginning. He wants to . . ." She paused, and glanced at the duke. "Tell her."
"I want to make right my past, where I can." He made that avowal as if it was rote, committed to memory, and mayhap with the commanding woman he'd made his duchess, he'd been required to do so.
Edwina puzzled her brow. The Duke and Duchess of Bentley were only recently married. Which meant . . . Edwina went still.
"They are all bastards," the duke said quietly.
"Illegitimate," the duchess admonished. "They are illegitimate."
His Grace frowned. "They mean the same thing."
"Ah," the Duchess of Bentley said, putting up a single finger, "but one is vastly more polite than the other, and therefore, that is the descriptor we shall go with."
Aye, bastard . . . or illegitimate . . . They both meant the same. Edwina's stomach muscles clenched. Bastard-born herself, a secret that would have destroyed all hope of an honorable existence if revealed, she knew all too well society's opinion of people born outside wedlock. It was the very reason she'd crafted a new identity for herself and lived a life and lie of respectability. She'd carved out a respectable life. Yes, whichever polite word one wished to dress it up with, a child born out of wedlock was nothing more than a bastard, always searching for and never finding society's approval.
But if I can groom a young woman, the daughter of a duke, to take her place among Polite Society . . . What that would do for her business. This represented her entry to the ton-that sphere that had previously been closed to her. One she'd sought so very hard to infiltrate.
"There is just one more detail I might mention . . ." The duke's pronouncement went unfinished.
"It is my husband's eldest son."
And just like that, those eager musings were popped. Oh, blast and damn on Tuesday. "I do not have male charges."
"Correction, Miss Dalrymple." The duchess tipped her lips up in a perfectly measured little smile. "You didn't have them. It is our expectation that after today . . . you will."
How very confident they were that Edwina would simply accept the assignment, no matter how unconventional and outrageous it was. But then, to those of the peerage, the word "no" meant nothing. It was why they weren't incorrect in their assumption that she'd not reject the assignment they put to her outright.
"Oh, and there is just one more thing, Miss Dalrymple."
What else could it possibly be? "Yes, Your Grace?"
"My husband's son? He's no interest in the title, or . . . receiving our company. We've sent our man of affairs . . ."
"Solicitors," the duke put in.
"Investigators. All of them have had little success in securing a meeting."
Edwina puzzled her brow. "Are they unable to locate him?" she asked, perplexed. And how was she supposed to find the gentleman if others had not?
Husband and wife exchanged a glance.
"Oh, no. We currently know where he and his siblings reside. We'll need you to convince the eldest of the lot to join you in London and begin instruction," the duke said.
They were mad. "Me?" A small laugh escaped her. "You expect me, a stranger and a woman at that, one who has never met him, to not only convince him but bring him back to London."
The duchess beamed. "You've stated it all quite clearly."
"And just what makes you believe I shall succeed when you have both failed?"
It was a bold, if accidental, challenge to two of London's most influential peers, and by the like frowns marring their mouths, they chafed at it.
"The fact that you and he both stand to benefit, Miss Dalrymple. That is why I expect you to not only accept the undertaking, but convince him that returning to London and claiming his rightful place as a duke's son is an opportunity neither of you can afford to pass up. If you take on this endeavor and succeed? You'll be richly compensated," the duke vowed. "Five hundred pounds if you manage to convince him to return to London." Her heart jolted, and she choked on her swallow. "And another two thousand upon your completion of his . . . transformation."
Edwina choked again, hurriedly covering her mouth with a fist.
It was a veritable fortune for a woman reliant upon her own skills and work in order to survive. And yet, neither was it enough to see her set. Nay, ultimately, her reputation and her skill set were what Edwina relied upon and would continue to rely upon, regardless of what decision she made this day.
"But I can also promise you far more than that, Miss Dalrymple," the duchess murmured.
Edwina straightened and retrained her focus on the elegant woman across from her.
"Once you transform His Grace's son, Polite Society will see there is no charge you cannot transform." The older and very astute peeress had been wise enough, then, to grasp just how much Edwina's business . . . and reputation meant.
As such, they'd offered all they might to bring her 'round to accepting, and yet she'd not succeeded as she had in the world by not analyzing every situation from every possible angle. She eyed them carefully. "Given the importance of the undertaking, why do you not pay a visit to the gentleman yourself?" she asked, removing all inflection.
"My children don't wish to see me."
Was it merely a trick of the room's shadows responsible for the glint of sadness she detected in his eyes?
Pulling off her gloves, the duchess proceeded to slap those fine leather articles together. "And with good reason," the duchess muttered. "We trust you might be more capable of conveying the benefits of his stepping forward into his rightful role."
They'd cracked open a door, allowing her a peek inside a life that, even with her successes as an instructor, she'd been without-entry to Polite Society and their daughters . . . and the respectability that would elevate her business . . . and set her on a path to independence, the likes of which she'd never known. And that had only existed as a fanciful musing she'd stopped allowing herself. "Very well," she said, forcing calm, while inside giddiness threatened to overwhelm that weak facade. "I shall accept your assignment." Edwina silently tapped her toes about, once more in a private celebration.