In the wake of a broken engagement and shunned by the ton, Mia Castellano does not retire to the country, as a proper young lady might, but sees her chance to escape society’s restraints—by becoming a courtesan. In her mind, no unmarried young woman is as free as a courtesan. She alone controls her destiny: managing her own money, having her own house, choosing her lovers. There’s only one obstacle in Mia’s path—Lord David Pennistan.
As a favor to his brother, Lord David agrees to escort Mia to his family’s home in Derbyshire, where her guardian awaits. Mia attracts nothing but trouble from the outset of their journey, yet with every adventure they share, Lord David’s desire for his charge grows. When they’re caught in a compromising situation, Lord David insists that she marry him. But there’s only one thing Mia wants from David, and it isn’t his charity or his title. Can he convince her before it’s too late that the love she wants is already hers—to take or to lose forever? Can he win more from this untamed beauty than just a courtesan’s kiss?
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A Travelers’ Inn The Cotswolds July 1819
“No is the most valuable word in the English language.” Mia Castellano raised two fingers to her mouth and tried to think of someplace, anyplace on earth, where women were as powerful as men. “Indeed, no is the most valuable word in any language.”
“You cannot mean that,” Miss Cole protested, her sweet face losing much of its charm when she frowned. “Shouldn’t a young lady always be obliging?”
Mia knew she would say that. She just knew it. Mia stood up and walked to the sideboard, drawing in the scent of the rose-filled arrangement. When everything else went awry, the scent of roses always refreshed her heart. She poured herself some tea and offered some to Miss Cole. After serving her, Mia began to put some of the sweet and savory treats on a plate.
She paused, turned back to this chance acquaintance, and looked her straight in the eye. “Of course, one likes to be obliging as often as possible, but think how often we are compelled by good manners to do something we do not truly wish to do.” She could sum up most of her life with that thought, at least until she herself had realized the power of “No.”
“Oh, yes.” Miss Cole’s words echoed with long suffering.
“It is the curse of being a lady, is it not?” Mia continued.
“Even this trip to London,” Miss Cole went on with growing enthusiasm for the subject. “I want nothing more than to start my first Season. I thought we should leave next week after Aunt Marjorie’s birthday, but Warren insisted that he had to be in Town this week.”
“If you had said ‘No’ quite firmly, what would have happened?”
“Why, I do not know.” Miss Cole thought through the conundrum for a moment. “My brother would have gone without me, I expect.”
“Precisely.” Mia set the plate on the table between them.
“You know, I do believe you are right. Mama would have allowed me to stay to help her with her packing and I could have come with her. We would have been very crowded, but I could have sent most of my trunks and even my maid ahead with Warren.”
“That is proof, is it not? No is the most important word in the world.” Despite her initial annoyance at not having privacy, Mia found it rather enlivening to share the inn’s sitting room with a girl as young and unformed as Miss Cole. Someone she could actually help, if not tutor, in ways to make the most of her Season.
“Excuse me,” Mia began as she took her seat again. “But why are you going to London in July? The Season has ended and the new one will not begin until next winter.”
“Yes, I know, but my older sister lives in London and has just given birth. Mama insists that we need six months to prepare for the Season. The truth is she cannot wait to see her first grandchild.”
Miss Cole did not seem to mind that a baby would upstage her Season. What a generous soul.
The two young women sat in companionable silence. Mia considered what to suggest next. It was so much more worthwhile than dwelling on her wounded heart.
The door burst open with a rudeness that matched the manners of the man who entered. Lord David Pennistan came into the parlor with his usual ill humor. He was nothing if not belligerent. Add to that unfriendly, closemouthed, and secretive.
How perfectly awful that Elena’s husband had chosen him to act as her escort. But if she were ever to say “No!” to the Duke of Meryon it would be over something much more important than the company of a man who regarded her with disgust. She hoped he could feel her disdain. His opinion meant less than nothing to her.
“We will leave now, Miss Castellano.”
Lord David did not bow or in any way acknowledge Miss Cole, manners being completely foreign to him.
“The horses are ready and we have another seventeen miles to cover before we stop for the night.” The clamor of the hectic posting house added to the sense of urgency.
If he had asked politely, Mia might have agreed, but his idea of conversation consisted of a series of commands that would annoy the most amiable of women.
“No, Lord David.” Mia flicked a glance at Miss Cole. “I am not quite ready.”
Lord David gave a curt nod. “Five minutes and we leave.”
He closed the door without waiting for her agreement. That would cost him. “You see how well ‘no’ can work.”
“Yes, but if you will excuse me, how can you say no to such a handsome man?”
“Quite easily.” Oh my, this girl had so much to learn, Mia thought. What a shame that she would not be in London to show her the way. “Yes, his expression is compelling and the broad shoulders impressive.” Blond and handsome could be said of all the Pennistan men, Lord David included. “But he never smiles, has no conversation, and when he does speak it is to tell me to do something that I would rather not, and he is traveling without his valet.”
“Without a valet!”
Mia knew that would shock the proper Miss, and it was so much more polite than the truth.
“Yes, indeed he is. He says that since this trip is so short, it is more efficient to send his valet ahead with his trunks. But, I ask you, how can a man manage alone? He must shave himself and tie his own cravat, not to mention polish his own boots.”
Miss Cole nodded. In truth, Mia agreed that a man could manage for himself for a few days, but the list of what the ton considered essential would convince Miss Cole of Mia’s most important point. “The word no was invented for men like him.”
Mia picked one rose from a small vase on the table, held it to her nose, and then tucked it into the buttonhole of her traveling gown. “I promise you that halfway through your first Season, you will realize that making a match is about more than how a man looks at you and how many flowers and sweets he sends.”
“Yes, I am sure you are right.” Miss Cole spoke as though the conversation made her uncomfortable. That was unfortunate. This subject was too important to ignore.
“Miss Cole, your Season is about finding the right match. And to that end it is in your best interest to collect as many admirers as possible. To make it clear that you have high expectations and more to give than they can even imagine. And I assure you, Miss Cole, men have very good imaginations when it comes to women.”
“You mean I should be a flirt?” Shock echoed in her voice.
“No, I do not. I mean you should charm every man you meet and not stop until all of the ton is at your feet. Then you shall have choices.”
Miss Cole laughed. “I do not see how using the word no will have all of society bowing before me.”
“It will make it clear that you are more woman than girl and that you know your own mind. Men find that very attractive. It implies that you are not constrained by society.” Mia leaned across the table and touched Miss Cole’s hand. “Promise me you will use the word no at least four times today.”
“I shall try.”
Miss Cole agreed easily enough, though Mia would have liked to hear a more determined tone.
“I shall try after we reach London.”
That meant never. “Are you afraid that if you say ‘No’ your brother will abandon you?”
“Not precisely, but if he is irritated he will not give a thought to my comfort and it will be a miserable trip. He is prone to bursts of temper that leave me in tears.”
“But once you see the power in the word, you will not need to cry because he will be doing as you wish.”
Miss Cole bit her lower lip.
Mia wished she could think of a way to convince this girl that future success merited the initial discomfort. She was proof of that. What could be worse than ending an engagement? And yet, after just two months, she was beginning to see that it had all been for the best.
Finally, Miss Cole nodded cautiously. “It seems to me, Miss Castellano, that the tone is as important as the word.”
“Oh, very good.” Hope lived! “Sometimes imperious works best. I pretend I am a queen. Other times my ‘No!’ is a command and I pretend I am Wellington and the word carries all the authority of his rank and success. And there is the ‘No’ that is a contest of wills. I think of a courtesan whose lover is begging for her favors.”