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A dazzling Regency romance from bestselling author Jane Ashford.Life is predictable for a Duke's first son. Or so he once thought...He was delighted that she shared this pleasure with him. And howlovely she looked, out here on the water. The wind had whipped color into hercheeks. Her sandy hair leaped and curled around her face. And her gray eyesshimmered and sparkled. Violet's beautyfor it was undoubtedly beautyarosefrom animation, he realized. When she was subdued and distant, as she'd alwaysbeen when he saw her before their marriage, it was hidden. A secret, like theflower she was named for, obscured by broader leaves in the forest. But nowhe'd discovered a different Violetvibrant, responsive. Watching her laugh asspray spattered her sleeve, he felt extremely fortunate. His instincts hadsomehow led him to a prize.As eldest son of the Duke ofLangford, Nathaniel Gresham sees his arranged marriage to Lady Violet Devere asjust another obligation to fulfillhighly suitable, if unexciting. But asViolet sets out to transform herself from dowdy wallflower to dazzling youngduchess-to-be, proper Nathaniel sets out to prove he's a match for his newbride's vivacity and daring.Oppressed by her family all her lifeespeciallyher domineering and horrible grandmotherLady Violet can't wait to enjoy thefreedom of being a married woman. But then Violet learns her family's sordidsecret, and she's faced with an impossible choicedoes she tell Nathaniel andrisk losing him, or does she hide it and live a lie?
About the Author
Jane Ashford discovered Georgette Heyer in junior high school and was captivated by the glittering world and witty language of Regency England. That delight was part of what led her to study English literature and travel widely. She's written historical and contemporary romances, and her books have been published all over Europe as well as in the United States. Jane has been nominated for a Career Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews. Find her on the web at www.janeashford.com and on Facebook. If you'd like to receive her monthly newsletter, you can sign up at either of those sites.
Read an Excerpt
OneNathaniel Gresham, Viscount Hightower, stirred in his sleep. His hands groped for bedclothes, found nothing. Sensing wrongness, his consciousness rose through layers of befuddlement and wisps of dreams. He opened his eyes to find a gaping maw of three-inch fangs inches from his throat. "Aah!" Nathaniel threw up his arms to shield his face and twisted to the side. The convulsive movement brought him right to the edge of a large four-poster bed, and he scrambled to avoid falling three feet to the floor. He twisted in the opposite direction and struck out at the sharp, yellowed teeth. They did not snap shut on his forearm or lunge into his face once more. Indeed, they did not move at all, except sideways under his blow. There was no snarl or slaver, no spark of rage in the shiny eye behind the fangs. Nathaniel shoved them farther away and sat up. He was stark naked, on a large bed stripped bare of linens, covered only by a moth-eaten gray wolf skin. The wretched thing's head had been carefully placed on his chest, to ensure the rude awakening. His hips still rested under its hindquarters. Molting fur peppered the bed. The mere sight of the ancient pelt made his skin itch. Revolted, he pushed it all the way off and moved to the foot of the bed, struggling to get his bearings. This wasn't his bedchamber. The blue-striped wallpaper was alien, the furnishings unfamiliar; the windows with their slant of early morning light were in the wrong place. Then he remembered. He was staying at the Earl of Moreley's country house, because tomorrow-no, today-he was to marry the earl's daughter at their local parish church. Nathaniel glared at the wolf skin, then rubbed his hands over his face. This was what it meant to have five brothers-five younger brothers-on one's wedding day. Or rather, on one's wedding eve, a night they'd insisted upon marking with bowls of rack punch. Had it been three? Or had he lost count? No wonder they'd kept filling his glass, if they had this prank planned. Where the devil had they found a wolf skin in a strange house? And hadn't he told his father, when Robert was born in his sixth year, that four sons were quite enough? Even for a duke, six sons were excessive. At this particular moment, Nathaniel thought that his parents might have been content with just one. He rose, stretching stiff limbs and marveling that he had only a mild headache. Revenge on his brothers would have to wait for another day. Today, he was getting married. He was doing his duty to his name and his line, pledging himself to a woman who would be an admirable duchess when their turn came-may it be far in the future. The match was eminently suitable. All society acknowledged its rightness. And despite Violet's irascible grandmother, the occasional bane of his existence, he could have no complaints. Indeed, why had the word even occurred to him? No one had rushed him into marriage. He had enjoyed a plenitude of seasons in London and a number of agreeable flirtations and liaisons with delightful females. Though they had never spoken of it, he was aware that his parents had given him every opportunity to fall in love. But the passion that had overtaken them in their young days had not befallen him. He wasn't sure why, but once he'd passed thirty he concluded it never would. He'd had more than enough time to observe that such a bond was rare in the circles of the haut ton. Nathaniel stretched again, his bare limbs a bit chilly. This marriage was certainly not a penance. He liked Violet very much. They'd been acquainted for years. He did not know whether she'd had other offers, but he supposed that she too had waited for love to find her. They had that in common. They were also well suited by background, had similar tastes, and enjoyed the same even temperament. When he'd decided that the time for marriage had come, he'd simply known that she was the proper candidate. He expected their union to be gracious, harmonious, and ideal for the significant position they would someday be called upon to fulfill. And now it was time to stop woolgathering, put on his dressing gown, and begin this momentous day. Nathaniel walked over to the oaken wardrobe on the far wall and opened it. It was empty. All his clothes had disappeared. He stared at the bare hooks. This part of the prank would be Sebastian's doing, he imagined. It had his next younger brother's touch. Nathaniel met his own gaze in the mirror set into the wardrobe door, and acknowledged the spark of amused annoyance in his eyes. His brothers had a fiendish facility for complicated jests. The figure in the glass shook its head. All the sons of the Duke of Langford were tall, handsome, broad-shouldered men with auburn hair and blue eyes. Sebastian was the tallest. Robert the wittiest. Randolph was acknowledged as the handsomest, James the most adventurous, and Alan the smartest. But he was the eldest, and the heir. For as long as he could remember, Nathaniel had felt the weight of his destiny. The others said it was a burden to have everything done ahead of them, but he'd felt the onus of being the pattern, setting up the expectations, being the son visitors scrutinized the most. He would be the next duke; he must show he was worthy. Thus, he kept a tight rein on his wilder impulses. Instead, he was the one who came to the rescue when one of his brothers went too far, kicking up a lark. And so now, he did not slam the empty wardrobe shut, but simply closed it. He would leave it to his valet to straighten this out. He wanted hot water for washing, and then clothes, and then breakfast. He went to ring for Cates, and discovered that the bell rope had been removed. He could see the wire to which it had been connected, near the ceiling, twelve feet up. It must have taken two or three of his brothers to reach so high. For a moment he just stood there, staring at it. This final touch would be Robert's idea, no doubt. He'd always been the most ingenious, the brother who added the crowning climax to a prank. Robert would be the one to set the others guffawing-describing their elder brother slinking through the corridors of the Earl of Moreley's house wrapped in a wolf skin, like some sort of demented ancient Celt. Even Nathaniel had to smile at the picture. How would Violet's fierce stickler of a grandmother like that? And all the other near and distant relations visiting for the wedding? He'd barely met most of them. Perhaps he'd twine some ivy from outside the window in his hair and attempt a Gaelic war cry. Nathaniel laughed. Truth to tell, it was a splendid prank, unfolding like a puzzle box upon its hapless victim. All that remained was for him to wiggle out of the trap so cunningly set. He eyed the windows and considered pulling down some of his almost-mother-in-law's elaborate draperies to wrap about himself. But one panel would trail behind him like a coronation robe. The picture was little better than the wolf skin. Perhaps he would just wait until Cates arrived on his own. It couldn't be too much longer. In fact, judging by the sunlight, his valet ought to have appeared well before now. Where the devil was he? As if in answer to this thought, there was a knock at the door. "Nathaniel?" The voice was the last he expected. "Violet?" "Are you all right? James said you needed to speak to me most urgent-" The door opened, and Nathaniel's promised bride looked around the panels. "Oh!" Her mouth dropped open. Nathaniel-stark naked, next to a bed sporting only a rumpled wolf skin-braced for a shriek, a shocked retreat, babbled apologies. But Violet just looked at him. Indeed, it seemed as if she couldn't tear her eyes away. He could almost feel her gaze traveling along his skin, as if it left trails of warmth. He saw something stir in those gray eyes, something he'd never observed before, and his body began to respond to the possibility of much more than he'd expected from his suitable marriage. Respond all too eagerly. Nathaniel moved over behind the bed. "My brothers' idea of a joke," he said with a gesture toward the wolf skin. Violet blinked. Color flooded her cheeks, and she looked away. "How did they...?" Her voice was rather choked. "They are endlessly inventive. They stole my clothes as well. Would you have someone send Cates to me? I would ring but"-he pointed to the bell wire-"they were quite thorough." Violet glanced at the denuded wire, swallowed, and gave a quick nod. "Of course." In the next instant, she was gone. "Well, well," murmured Nathaniel to the wolf. "That was interesting." His days of being capable of interest long past, the wolf made no reply. * * * Outside the closed door, Lady Violet Devere put her hands to her blazing cheeks and took a moment to recover her breath before going in search of Nathaniel's valet. She'd never seen a grown man totally naked before. Half-naked, yes. Perhaps three quarters, if you counted...? What was wrong with her brain? It was jumping about like a startled grasshopper. It was just... Nathaniel had seemed so very naked. She hadn't been able to look away; she hadn't even been able to think that she should avert her eyes. The sight of him-so tall and handsome and...naked had been riveting. And tonight she would be his wife, granted the...freedom of all that...nakedness. She had married friends; she knew what that meant. Of course she had married friends. She was twenty-six years old! Which explained why she'd opened his bedchamber door. When she shouldn't have. It was quite improper. But his brother James had sounded so odd when he spoke to her. She'd leapt to dire conclusions and rushed in, fearing that the wedding was to be put off, that her grandmother had said or done something outrageous. The thought was insupportable. Her future was settled at last. She would grow no older waiting to marry. She would not watch yet another crop of debs enter society and pair off. It was all very well for Nathaniel. He was a man, free of the countless idiotic strictures that beset an unmarried "girl" with an iron-willed grandmother who was absolutely devoted to the proprieties. He could do whatever he liked with his...really gorgeous body. Violet took a deep breath, and then another. She stood straighter, consciously relaxed tense muscles. All was well. It had merely been a prank. She knew about pranks; she had two much younger brothers, welcomed with relief after her disappointing female birth, and rather spoiled by their parents. A belated laugh escaped her. The sons of the Duke of Langford must be masters of the art to have somehow stranded Nathaniel, naked, with the skin of the wolf her grandfather had shot in the wilds of Russia. Wasn't it kept in a locked cabinet? Violet started for the servants' hall, slightly hampered by the cascade of ruffles at the hem of her white dress. She jerked the fabric out of her way. She hated white, and was all too aware that the hue did not flatter her. It washed out her pale complexion, her sandy hair and gray eyes. Put her in white-in any pastel, really-and she practically faded into the wallpaper. Of course, this didn't matter to Grandmamma. An unmarried girl wore pale colors, and that was that. The rules were not to be questioned, even when they made one look a complete frump. And Violet's mother existed firmly under her mother-in-law's thumb. Catching movement in the corner of her eye, Violet paused before a long mirror on the corridor wall. Her features were good, if she did say so-straight nose, well-shaped lips, eyes a lucent gray. If allowed to make something of them, with a more fashionable haircut and perhaps just a touch of color for her cheeks...? Violet imagined her grandmother's horror at the latter idea. She imagined it for several seconds. How she hated ruffles. And this dress had far too many, cluttering the silhouette, obscuring the lines of her form. She'd seen gowns at London balls that would have accentuated the subtle curves she definitely possessed, in colors and fabrics that would flatter rather than subdue. The question popped into her mind: what would Nathaniel think if he came upon her naked? Violet flushed again. The rosy hue was quite becoming. She stared at her reflection and acknowledged that it was going to be quite...interesting to see what Nathaniel thought. Their match was the union of two great families. And as Violet's grandmother never tired of repeating, it wasn't about her. Nathaniel needed a wife who could be a proper duchess. But perhaps he needed other things as well. Violet watched her mirror image smile in a quite unfamiliar way. She scarcely recognized herself. It was as if impulses long stifled were surfacing in the mirror, summoned by the sight of her almost-husband. Violet blinked. If her grandmother, or her father, or her mother came along now, she'd be in for a scold. Fierce, cold, fearful-they each had their way of pointing out her shortcomings. Of which she seemed to have a never-ending supply. At times, it had even seemed to Violet that her family valued their criticisms more than her future prospects. She was crushing the hated ruffles in both hands, she realized. She opened them. It didn't matter. Nathaniel had offered for her. In a few hours she would be a married woman, and everything would be different. She could do as she pleased. She would no longer live with her grandmother. She would not be told what to wear and whom she could see. She would not be scrutinized for flaws at every turn. In her own household, she would be the arbiter. In fact, she had a list of things Grandmamma had forbidden, and she intended to indulge in them as soon as might be. Violet nodded at her reflection with a steely gaze that would have startled those who thought they knew her. A footman appeared at the end of the corridor. Violet dropped her eyes and moved away from the mirror, resuming her mantle of sweet compliance. "John, would you tell Cates that his lordship wants him? The bell is...broken." Violet wondered what that prim valet would think when he found Nathaniel naked with a wolf skin? But perhaps he was used to pranks; he had been with Nathaniel for a long time, and it seemed the Duke of Langford's sons were addicted to them. "Mr. Cates seems to be out this morning, your ladyship," replied the footman, his face stiff with disapproval. "Out? Where?" "No one seems to know, your ladyship." That was odd. Or... It must be part of the prank. Violet nodded to the footman and walked farther along the corridor until she heard male voices from a small parlor on her right. Taking another step on paths forbidden by her grandmother, Violet eased the door open a crack and peeked through. All of Nathaniel's brothers were gathered around the hearth, a very handsome conspiracy. Shamelessly, Violet eavesdropped. "This has gone far enough. We should take him some clothes," said Alan. He was the youngest brother, and the only one married so far, Violet recalled. He lived in Oxford and did something at the university. Violet thought she might like his wife, Ariel. She hadn't had a chance to find out, because Grandmamma didn't approve of her for some reason. She added an item to her list: get to know Ariel Gresham. "Nonsense," said Robert. "It's a challenge to his ingenuity." Violet was well acquainted with both Robert and Sebastian. They were extremely fashionable young men and fixtures of the haut ton. Robert was known for his wit, and Sebastian for the exquisite cut of his Guard's uniforms. "He's getting married in three hours," Randolph pointed out. Thank you, thought Violet. Randolph was the clergyman. His parish was somewhere up north, and he was rarely in town. Violet had met him only twice before. Should a man of the cloth be pulling pranks involving nakedness and wolf skins? "Plenty of time," said Sebastian. Who was notorious for being late to social engagements, Violet thought. "No, it isn't," said Alan. "I sent Violet to him," said James. This fifth-oldest Gresham brother had just returned from a three-year naval mission that had taken him right around the world. Violet didn't know him at all. The rest of them turned on him in a general babble of, "You what?" "I passed her on the stairs and told her Nathaniel needed to speak to her. Most urgently." James grinned. Violet blinked. She had thought James the least striking of the brothers. His smile changed her opinion. It was full of vitality and perfectly charming. Randolph sank into an armchair. "What have we done? To expose a gently reared young lady..." Alan let out a long sigh. "She will have a nervous collapse," said Robert, sounding rather awed. "She will fall into a fit of the vapors and never come out. Why have we heard no shrieks or running footsteps?" Was this what they thought of her? Violet was mortified. Her grandmother would say it was what she got for listening at doors. The same grandmother who had ensured that people saw Violet as a prudish, missish stick. "They're getting married," James said. "Whatever she sees...well, she's going to see it anyway." "With a wolf skin?" said Alan. Randolph made a choking sound. "If the old lady finds out..." began Sebastian. "We flee the country," responded Robert. "James will find us a ship to the antipodes." Violet had to stifle a laugh. She hadn't realized how much she was going to enjoy being a Gresham. Suppressing a smile, she pushed the parlor door open and walked in. "What have you done with Cates?" she demanded. She was met with silence and a circle of staring blue masculine eyes. "Cates?" said Robert. "Nathaniel's valet? He appears to be missing." "Missing?" said Randolph. Violet turned to him, and he took a step back. "So I am told. Am I not speaking clearly? Perhaps if you returned our bell rope...?" "You know about the..." Alan's voice trailed off. Violet raised her eyebrows. "I was just speaking to Nathaniel and-" "Nathaniel? In his room?" interrupted Robert. "In his room," she confirmed. "With his lupine companion." Robert's mouth fell open. James burst out laughing. "I locked the valet in the garden shed," he admitted. From the babble that broke out, Violet concluded that this had not been part of the plan. Pitching her voice to cut through it, she said, "You will release him immediately and send him to Nathaniel." She fixed each brother in turn with a stern look. "Yes?" "Yes," said Alan. The others nodded. With an answering nod, Violet turned and went out. Silence followed. Finally, Robert spoke in hushed tones. "She sounded just like her grandmother." This elicited another round of solemn nods. Except from James. "What's wrong with you?" he said. "She seems like a capital girl to me."