After her mother’s death, May’s sea captain father sends her halfway around the world to live with his stodgy sister in England. The summer festival in Bath made for a lovely distraction, but now she can’t wait for her father’s return so she can leave this country, its suffocating rules, and one infuriatingly proper nobleman in particular behind.
Because he is the Duke of Radcliffe, William Spencer’s whole life revolves around his duties. He never steps foot outside the bounds of proper behavior, and he expects the same of those around him. With her devil-may-care ways, May vexes him nearly as much as she tempts him, but there’s something about her that he just can’t resist. He knows he’s falling hard for her, but with lives that are worlds apart, will they ever be able to find any common ground?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR ERIN KNIGHTLEY’S PRELUDE TO A KISS SERIES
Also by Erin Knightley
To most, Mei-li Bradford’s aunt was known simply as Lady Stanwix, second wife and widow of the old earl. To a very select few, she was referred to as Victoria. To the servants, she was called something not entirely fit to repeat. But in May’s mind, her father’s sister—with whom she’d be living until Papa returned from his current voyage—was more often than not The Warden.
An entirely fitting title, given how often she required May to stay buried in the suffocating opulence of the grand house the older woman had called home for the past two decades. The rooms were large, but that didn’t make the place any less confining. Especially since, thanks to her aunt’s uninspired sense of design, the place was as dark and dreary as a mausoleum.
Fortunately, May was nothing if not resourceful.
And while she prudently avoided clashing with her aunt whenever possible—she had made a promise to her father to behave in his absence, after all—she was not above exploiting The Warden’s weaknesses.
Which was precisely why May had been sneaking out every morning for the past three months. She had a routine to keep, and after a lifetime of tropical living, she refused to do her morning exercises within the olive-and-brown-walled confines of the lifeless old house. Although, to be fair, it was hardly sneaking when one walked straight out the front door. If her aunt chose to keep to a rigid routine that consisted of being awoken at nine o’clock sharp every morning—and not one minute before—then that was her prerogative. Just as it was May’s to rise before dawn and start her day.
Smiling, she breathed in the cool morning air as she pulled the door closed behind her, more grateful than ever for the quiet solitude of the city this early in the morning. Unlike many of the cities May had visited in her life, Bath had a certain laziness to it this time of the day. This was a city that came alive in the evening, with the monied glow of hundreds of beeswax candles lighting the rented homes and public gathering places that were packed to overflowing come sundown.
Walking along the deserted streets in the timid predawn glow, one would never suspect the thousands upon thousands of visitors filling every available inn and town house, nearly all of whom had flocked to Bath for the first annual Summer Serenade in Somerset music festival.
The festival, and the new friends it had brought her, was the only thing making this forced visit bearable. Until last night. Her jaw tightened at the memory of the disastrous evening she had endured thanks to the combined efforts of The Warden and one self-entitled, pompous visitor in particular. As quickly as the thought had popped into her mind, she mentally shoved it away again.
Coming to the park by the river today wasn’t about her aunt, or more specifically, defying her aunt. Nor was it about the encounter last night, as infuriating as it had been. Coming here today was about her. It was about doing what she had done every morning for years, whether she was in the Far East, the East Indies, on the open ocean, or right here in Bath.
And she’d be damned if she’d let her aunt’s dictates or last night’s confrontation spoil it for her.
Arriving at the park at last, May slipped out of her shoes and stepped onto the soft, dewy grass. Bliss. Next she shed her dull gray pelisse, letting the ugly fabric fall in a heap on the damp ground. The coat had been the first thing Aunt Victoria had commissioned for May upon her arrival this past spring. It had seemed a nice enough gesture, until she realized it was The Warden’s attempt to cover May’s bright and exotic wardrobe. Still, its dreary color did come in handy this time of morning, when she wished to avoid notice if, by chance, someone did happen to be about.
Sighing happily, she stretched her hands over her head, reveling in the loss of the restrictive garment. God bless the English and their propensity to sleep in. Not only did she actually have some time to herself each morning, but there was no one around to dissolve in a fit of vapors over the thin silken tunic and trousers she wore.
The soft whisper of the fabric was nearly lost in the muted sounds of the flowing River Avon as she walked toward the clearing beside the water, limbering up her body as she went. Rolled shoulders, windmilled arms, a few neck stretches—just enough to get the blood flowing for her routine. The light was particularly lovely this morning, all pinks and purples with the blushing promise of a new day. In this light, the greens of the trees and grass and shrubs and, well, everything in this bloody country, wasn’t quite so overwhelming. Truly, it was as though the king had ordained exactly one shade of green for every plant, leaf, and blade of grass in the country, and the flora, being good little English subjects, had obliged.
She caught herself sliding down the familiar path of negativity and firmly banished the thoughts from her mind. She was here to find peace. To be centered for the day, to start off the morning on the best possible foot.
Breathing in a long, slow lungful of the fresh morning air, she cleared her mind of all the clutter it had accumulated over the past twenty-four hours. And there was a lot of clutter, thanks to yesterday’s debacle. Getting her body into position, she closed her eyes, imagined her favorite place on Earth, and began her routine.
Each movement was slow and controlled, gliding effortlessly from one position to the next. She took slow, measured breaths and focused on the feel of the air as her hands swished through it, on the gentle sound of the river flowing against its banks, and on the soft, spongy grass beneath her feet as she slid from one step to the next.
Yes, the routine that she’d learned from Suyin, her friend and lady’s maid, was technically a form of martial arts, but it could more accurately be described as meditation in motion. The movements were so familiar, it was as though her limbs moved themselves, following the age-old rhythm that she’d learned years ago. The sleeves of her tunic slid along her arms like cool water, pooling at her elbows before slipping back down to her wrists. Again and again the silk caressed her skin as she went through the routine, a sort of silent lullaby.
As the minutes ticked by, the knotted muscles of her upper back loosened and her body became more and more relaxed. The tension caused by the day before melted like candle wax. Her mind settled as well, letting go of all the negativity that had plagued her since yesterday.
Just as she had reached the perfect place of quiet clarity, the sound of a cleared throat startled her from her peace, wrenching her back to the present. She straightened abruptly and swung around, her heart pounding.
She saw the interloper at once, standing only a dozen feet away with arms crossed and lips raised in a slight sneer that she was beginning to think was the only expression he was capable of. His strong, aristocratic jaw was tipped up in a look of superiority as his decidedly disgusted whiskey-brown eyes raked her over from the top of her head to the bottom of her bare feet. May silently cursed.
In four different languages.
The Duke of Radcliffe, it would seem, was not as easily forgotten as originally hoped.
* * *
The previous evening
“You look beautiful. A gemstone come to life.”
May glanced away from the mirror and grinned to Suyin, who was not only her lady’s maid, but her friend and companion. “Thanks to you, of course,” she said, giving a little wink.
Suyin nodded once. “Yes, I know,” she said, her dry humor making May laugh. Her English was much better than May’s Chinese, but she always spoke with an economy of words. Tilting her head to the side as she regarded May’s reflection, she smiled softly and said, “So like your mother. More every day.”
May drew in a swift breath, the unexpected comment making her heart squeeze. Joy and sadness mingled within her chest at the thought of her mother, who had died last year. Smiling past the emotion, she nodded her thanks.
Outward beauty was such a subjective thing—a truth learned over the years as May had encountered different cultures and their varying definitions of what was appealing. May never put much stock in comments, be they positive or negative, about her looks. But to be compared to her mother? It was enough to bring uncharacteristic moisture to her eyes, which she quickly blinked away.
“This was her favorite color,” she said at last, sliding her hand over the cerulean silk of her gown. Papa had bought it for May during their last trip to Java, and Smita, one of her dearest friends in India, had embroidered the bold design at her waist, a colorful two-inch-wide band with stylized flowers in varying shades of yellow, pink, and blue. Another band trimmed the gown’s hem, which was just short enough to show a hint of her magenta silk slippers. It was an ensemble she knew her mother would have loved, which in turn made May love it that much more.
Suyin nodded. “Blue silk makes blue eyes sing.”
“How very poetic,” May responded with a lighthearted shake of her head as she got her emotions back under control. “Although, at the moment, I’m much more concerned with making my fingers dance than my eyes sing.”
Her friend’s beautiful almond-shaped eyes widened incredulously. “Mei-li? Nervous? It cannot be.”
May chuckled at the teasing. “Not so much nervous as excited. This is the last time we shall play as a trio—I want to do well.” It had been an unexpectedly lovely summer, thanks to Sophie, Charity, and the little trio they had formed.
They had found one another quite by accident over a month ago during the first days of the festival, when one of the organizers had insisted there was room for only one more in their Tuesday evening performances. Not to be thwarted, they had impulsively joined together into a trio that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to May. Being able to play her guzheng in concert with such wonderful musicians had been a treat, but it was their friendship that she truly treasured. When her father finally came to collect her, she had every intention of writing them copiously, no matter the cost.
The clock in the hall tolled seven o’clock. Devil take it—May was late. Rushing to grab her wrap, she turned and gave Suyin a bright smile. “Enjoy your evening! And do wish us luck—with that crowd, we may well need it.”
“Zhù hao yùn,” Suyin dutifully called after her as May rushed out the door.
Aunt Victoria was as fastidious about time as a clockmaker, so this wasn’t the best start to the evening. May hurried down the stairs, lifting her skirts halfway up her calves in an effort to keep from tripping. As she reached the landing, the butler smoothly pulled open the door, his dour expression unchanged despite the breathless female racing past him.
“Thank you, Hargrove,” she called as she rushed to the waiting carriage. Her aunt’s profile was just visible through the closed window of the carriage, her elegantly sloped nose lifted despite the fact she was alone. Perhaps that was her natural resting position after all.
The evening sun flashed across the black lacquer door as the footman pulled it open and assisted her up. She smiled briefly to him before settling onto the seat beside her aunt. Arranging her skirts as carefully as she could, she said, “Good evening, Aunt Victoria. My apologies for my tardiness.”
Instead of answering, her aunt rapped on the roof, signaling to the driver to be off. It was only after they had merged into the slow-moving traffic headed up the hill that she deigned to turn to May, her gray eyes disapproving. “Punctuality is a virtue. Particularly when a duke is present.”
Her aunt would actually have been quite attractive, if she could ever relax now and then. Her cheeks were smooth and softly rounded, but her mouth and forehead were lined from the scowl that seemed to weigh down her features more often than not.
Inwardly sighing, May nodded. “Hence the apology. I have no wish to be late to the gala.” She cared not at all for a duke she had never met, but she had no intention of wasting any of her remaining time with her friends, especially on such a big night.
“Do not take that tone with me, young lady. If I had my way, we wouldn’t be attending at all.”
May’s eyebrow lifted, despite her intention to remain impassive. “What tone? I was merely—”
“Oh yes, you are forever ‘merely’ doing one thing or another. I’ve gone above and beyond in my attempts to teach you proper comportment, yet you steadfastly cling to your habits.” She adjusted her shawl, aggravation making the movement jerky. “Which is precisely why I will not be introducing you to the duke. I will not allow your poor manners to reflect ill upon me in his presence. Heaven knows you’ve done enough damage already.”
May’s excitement for the evening abruptly fizzled in the face of her aunt’s censure. She had been all of one minute late, for God’s sake. Leave it to The Warden to snowball that small infraction into something so dire. Her spine stiffened as she cut her gaze to her aunt. “Yes, so much damage that the committee saw fit to invite the trio to perform for the vaunted duke.”
Aunt Victoria’s lips pinched together, emphasizing the wrinkles that radiated from her mouth like the spokes of a wagon wheel. May could practically see the steam building behind her ears. “One more impertinent comment, and you will find yourself back home the very moment the performance is over.”
It was May’s nature to rebel against her aunt’s authoritative manner, but for perhaps the thousandth time that summer, she bit her tongue and took a deep breath. Her father had implored her to respect his sister’s authority. May had done her best to honor his wishes, for more reasons than one. It wouldn’t be forever, and she didn’t wish to make either of them more miserable than they already were with the living arrangements. Still, it galled her not to defend herself.
After a few moments of silence, her aunt nodded, apparently pleased that she had won that round. They carried on for a few minutes with the tentative ceasefire, each of them staring out their respective windows in the increasingly stifling heat of the small space. For some ridiculous reason, her aunt felt it was more dignified to travel in a closed carriage.
Finally, the horses slowed to a stop, and the butter yellow limestone of the Assembly Rooms came into view. Without waiting for the groom to assist them, May pushed open the door and stepped out, grateful for a breath of fresh air. She pulled off her wrap and lifted her arms. She sincerely hoped no dampness marred the silk bodice.
Her aunt alighted from the carriage, her brow ominously furrowed as she took in May’s gown. Before she could say whatever sour thing was perched on the end of her tongue, May held up her hands. “Please, may we just enjoy a pleasant evening? I won’t say or do anything to embarrass you. I will speak with Charity and Sophie and consider the evening a rousing success for not having conversed with anyone else. I honestly have no wish to draw any attention outside of our performance.”
The Warden looked none too pleased with May’s little speech. “Is that so? One wonders at your choice of gown if it is not attention that you seek.” Shaking out the voluminous skirts of her lavender gown, she sighed and said, “However, I shall take you at your word. Do not make me regret it.”
An hour later, May was valiantly attempting to recapture her earlier good mood as she stood off to the side of the Ballroom with Sophie during intermission. Sophie, who was now the Countess of Evansleigh and still very much a blushing newlywed, had that certain gleam in her eye as she looked past May’s shoulder, which warned her of Sophie’s intentions before she even said a word.
“Don’t look now, but you are being watched most intently.”
May grimaced. She had been right: Sophie was matchmaking. Letting out a long-suffering sigh, she sent Sophie a stern look. “I have absolutely no problem not looking. In fact, I shall continue to not look for the rest of the evening.”
She kept her gaze where it was, idly watching the milling crowds of music lovers all here for the extravagant gala honoring the arrival of the festival’s patron. Everyone seemed to be decked out in their absolute finest, with jewels glittering every which way one looked and cravats reaching their most absurd heights yet.
Sophie merely grinned, her enthusiasm not dimmed in the least. Of course, when it came to Sophie, very little ever managed to dim her enthusiasm. It was one of the things May liked best about her. “Yes, I know, being gawped at is a completely normal experience for you, blond goddess that you are, but it’s not the staring that is unusual; it’s who is doing the staring.” She leaned forward, clasping May’s hands in excitement. “It’s the Duke of Radcliffe!”
Ah, the patron himself. Lord High-and-Mighty, whom Aunt Victoria deemed too lofty to be tainted by May’s lowly presence. The awe in Sophie’s voice was unmistakable, and May didn’t wish to trample her excitement, but it was difficult to keep her cynicism at bay. “That’s nice,” she said diplomatically, though with no real enthusiasm.
Though she was technically English, many of the social customs here were still foreign to her. The incredibly strict rules relating to a lady’s behavior was at the top of the list, but the tendency to practically worship peers of the realm was a close second.
That’s not to say that she didn’t enjoy some peers on an individual level—Sophie’s new husband, the Earl of Evansleigh, was quite lovely, as was Charity’s betrothed, Baron Cadgwith—but elevating the group as a whole merely because of the lucky circumstances of their births seemed beyond absurd. Particularly when the peer in question couldn’t even be bothered to attend the very festival he was patronizing until the very last week—a fact that everyone seemed to be tactfully ignoring.
Undaunted, Sophie rolled her eyes and said, “It’s not nice—it’s tremendous! He is young—but not too young—handsome in a reserved sort of way, obscenely wealthy, unmarried, and as close to royalty as we could hope to find outside of the palace grounds. And believe me,” she added, looking around as she lowered her voice, “he is much more attractive than any of the royal family.”
Despite herself, May laughed at her friend’s less than shocking revelation. “From what I hear, most anyone is more attractive than the royal family.”
“What have you two got your heads together about?” Charity Effington, the other member of their little musical trio, approached with three punch glasses precariously balanced in her slender hands. Her cheeks were about as red as her hair, no doubt thanks to the overly warm and crowded hall.
Sophie grinned, her dark eyes sparkling every bit as gaily as her yellow-and-white diamond necklace in the Assembly Rooms’ dazzling candlelight. “The Duke of Radcliffe has fallen for our May. Perhaps if we can match them up, we can keep May from leaving us when her father returns.”
“He most certainly has not fallen for me,” May cut in, widening her eyes at Sophie. “And I most certainly will not fall for him. Just because you two find yourselves rather happily impaled upon cupid’s arrow does not mean I am similarly inclined.”
“You only say that because you haven’t seen him,” Sophie said, irrepressible as always.
Charity chuckled as she handed out the crystal punch cups. “He is rather handsome, in a tall, dark, and imperious sort of way.”
“Charity!” Sophie exclaimed as she playfully bumped her arm. “You are not helping.”
“Oh yes, she is,” May responded, flipping open her fan with her free hand. It was hot as hades here tonight thanks to the two unusually hot days they’d had in a row. Perhaps she was losing the immunity to heat she had spent a lifetime acquiring in the tropical climes in which she’d grown up. That thought did not sit well. “I’ve no interest in any of the men here, and dukes in particular. If I wanted to spend time with someone unaccountably superior, I’d seek out Miss Harmon.”
“Touché,” said Charity, laughter buoying the word. Miss Harmon seemed to go out of her way to belittle every female in a half-mile radius, and not a one of the three of them had been spared her barbs.
Speaking of unaccountably superior, Mr. Green, one of the festival coordinators, squeezed his way through the crush, his pale eyes looking down at them all the while through the smudged lenses of his spectacles. “Pardon me, ladies. I thought it prudent to remind you that you are scheduled to be the first performance after the intermission. Please be at the stage in five minutes.”
There was no love lost between the trio and Mr. Green. He’d been so insufferably rude the first time they had met, it was hard now to address him with any amount of respect. May smiled with all the sweetness of a sack of coal. “Not to worry, kind sir. We shall be punctual or die trying.”
“Well, there is a first time for everything,” he retorted before turning on his heel and marching away.
Before May could form a properly cutting insult for the man, Charity sighed and shook her head. “One must wonder if he has ever known a moment of joy in his life. Such a shame to go through life with such a sour outlook.”
Ever since she and the baron had come to know and later love each other, Charity had begun to look at others with a kinder eye. May, however, was not so afflicted. “If you ask me, he takes quite a bit of pleasure in spreading misery wherever he goes. Now then, shall we make our way toward the stage? I should hate to give Mr. Green the satisfaction of seeing us late.”
The others nodded, and they quickly finished off their drinks. May couldn’t have cared less about the duke’s supposed interest in her, but his patronage had made the festival possible, and for that she could be no less than grateful. And in any event, she and the other girls were always happy for an excuse to perform together, even if May’s aunt did so hate exposing the tender ears of their fellow festival-goers to May’s Chinese zither. Relinquishing their cups to a passing footman, they smiled to one another, linked hands, and headed off toward the stage.
“Congratulations on attaining the ripe age of thirty, old man. Many happy returns, et cetera, et cetera.”
William Spencer, Duke of Radcliffe, turned away from the lovely blond vision in blue silk below and nodded in acceptance of his friend’s felicitations, such as they were. Lord Derington was one of the few people in the world who dared speak so familiarly to him. Although, anyone who could legitimately claim to have saved William’s life at one point or another was certainly welcome to the same privilege.
“Thank you, Dering,” he said dryly, lifting a sardonic eyebrow. “Your tidings warm the soul.”
The man grinned as he came to join William at the balcony railing. “Quite a gathering for your royal self. I’m beginning to wonder if elephants and tigers will be next.”
Following his gaze, William had to agree. As the guest of honor, he was seated on the balcony enclave where he could best view the performances and, by extension, the attendees. It was better than mingling below, but this wasn’t how he had envisioned his first night in Bath. “Honestly, I find this whole exhibition quite unnecessary.”
He’d been so furious when he’d received word of his stepmother’s latest exploits, he didn’t think of the ramifications when he sent word of his intention to attend the last week of the festival. He’d been focused on arriving as quickly as possible in order to curtail her activities, not on the fact that his arrival would set off the inevitable series of events leading to just this sort of evening.
Yes, he had provided the initial funding for the first Summer Serenade in Somerset music festival, and yes, he had used his connections to help populate it with some of the best musicians in the country, but that didn’t mean he had expected or wanted such a display in his honor.
However, someone on the committee had known it was his birthday and they had taken it upon themselves to surprise him with an event fit for, well, a duke. So far, they’d trotted out half a dozen of the festival’s finest, from opera singers to lute players, and though they themselves were tremendously talented—England’s best and brightest, to be sure—he didn’t particularly like being displayed in a manner not unlike the exhibits at the tower menagerie.
Actually, he took that back. Being on display was ten times better than being at the mercy of the attendees. This was not some London event, where those present were more or less of the same social status and with an ingrained knowledge of propriety. Here, there was a much more diverse population, and his arrival had caused quite an uncomfortable stir.
In fact, in the half hour or so before he’d taken his place of honor, he’d politely ignored at least three eager young women who, despite their lack of proper introduction, had rather baldly attempted to catch his attention. As though that were the way to win the heart of an unmarried duke.
He did understand their enthusiasm—the honor of his station had been engrained in him since birth—but it was difficult to endure such breaks in protocol. In his family, there was nothing more sacred than pomp and circumstance. Whenever he did finally choose a duchess, it would be a woman who understood and respected such things.
His friend scoffed at William’s declaration. “Of course you find it unnecessary. Which is why it is such great fun to watch you endure it.” Dering’s dark gaze glinted in the candlelight as he gave William a devilish wink. “It’s even greater fun to know that, now that you’ve entered your fourth decade, calling you ‘old man’ takes on a frighteningly accurate new meaning.”
“I believe now is a good time to remind you that you are precisely one year younger than me, Dering. Barely perceptible difference, really.” It was good to banter with his long-time friend again. William had been preoccupied—obsessed, really—with his project for too long and had made time for little else.
His friend snorted in amusement. “Perceptible enough for those of us young enough to still be in possession of all our faculties.” A bit of the humor dimmed as he took in William’s appearance. “What’s happened that should bring you here at this late date? I remember you stating quite clearly that you were entirely too busy working on getting your new mill up and running to attend the festival.”
The muscles of his shoulders instantly tensed. “I’ll give you precisely one guess.”
Understanding flooded Dering’s features as he shook his head. “And what is dear Lady Radcliffe up to now?”
It was a testament to their friendship that Dering knew exactly what might bring him here. Since the day the old duke had announced his plan to marry Vivian a decade ago, she and William had clashed with each other. His father had been blinded by his lust for the Parisian beauty, and she had wisely kept him dangling after her like some sort of rutting stag by refusing to consummate their relationship until marriage. Once the deed was done, her true colors had been revealed, and William’s poor opinion of her had been vindicated.
She had always been her own top priority. She brought no money, no connections, no pedigree to the union. Nor did she bring respect for either the old duke or William. The only positive thing that he could say about her was that the affairs didn’t start until his father had died. Once she was a widow, all efforts of keeping up appearances had been tossed to the wind, and he’d been left with the continual task of damage control ever since.
He’d have disowned her from the family years ago if it weren’t for Julian and Clarisse, his young half siblings. He’d been raised without his mother, and he’d be damned if he’d allow the same to happen to them. At only five and seven years old, they still had need of her, even if she rarely had need of them. He was literally counting the days until they reached their majority and he could cut ties in good conscience. “She is a master at turning the screw. It’s diabolical, really.”
“A new lover, I take it?”
“Not just a new lover,” William said, the words as sharp as his lingering anger. “She’s bloody well taken up with Lord Norwich.”
As understanding dawned, Dering’s eyes widened and he dragged a hand down his jaw. “Bloody hell. She really is a piece of work. As is he, for that matter.”
William nodded grimly. He had spent the last six years spearheading the fight to break the East India Company’s trade monopoly so that English textiles could get a toehold in the market. Though William had been largely successful, the Company’s exclusive trade rights to China remained firmly in place, so there was still more to fight in the next session. His strongly held philosophy was and always would be that the more work was kept in England, the better off her citizens would be.
Norwich, whose fortunes were integrally tied to the Company, had been his biggest opponent in the House of Lords. Who better for Vivian to take up with, then? She seemed to savor her ability to infuriate him.
“So you are here to keep an eye on her?”
“More or less. She could bed the whole of His Majesty’s army, for all I care. But I intend to force her to be discreet about it.”
Dering quirked a brow, his faith in such a feat clearly lacking. “How, exactly, do you plan on accomplishing that?”
“Same as every time she does something like this,” William said, the frustration rising in his throat like bile. That woman needed attention like most people needed air. “As soon as I personally confront her, she always backs down. It’s the most tiresome cycle in the world, but I can’t seem to break it.”
The master of ceremonies climbed the four steps onto the stage then, and the hum of the crowd quieted. William drew a long breath, setting aside his renewed annoyance as best he could.
Dering started to turn toward the stairs, but William called him back with a wave of his hand. “You might as well stay. Ox that you are, you’ll cause a commotion if you try to make your way back to your seat now.”
They settled onto the elegant, almost thronelike wooden chairs and listened as the man on the stage announced the next performance. William straightened in his seat as he realized the trio included the tall blond woman of nearly otherworldly beauty that he’d spotted a few minutes earlier.
The interest that had been diverted by Dering’s arrival surged back to the forefront, and he leaned forward for a better look. He was in no mood to be bothered by the fairer sex just then, but exquisiteness such as hers demanded a man’s notice, whether he wished it or not.
With her regal bearing, golden skin, long limbs, and an inherent gracefulness that could rival any prima donna, she was exactly the sort of female with whom the ton clamored to associate, yet he was positive they had never crossed paths. Given the company she’d kept this evening, she was clearly of the higher echelons of society. How was it they had never met? She should have been on every gossip’s tongue and included in every betting book in town as to when and to whom she would marry. She should have been invited to any number of exclusive balls, and danced with only the most eligible of bachelors, including William.
Especially William. He was England’s most eligible bachelor, if the gossip rags were to be believed. So how had this diamond of the first waters managed to escape his notice?
The three women climbed the steps onto the stage, which was already outfitted with a pianoforte as well as another long, wooden instrument William couldn’t place. He recognized the other two women. The ginger-haired girl was Viscount Effington’s daughter and the short brunette was one of the Wembley girls. Both decent families with good connections, so it was unlikely they would cleave themselves to someone who wasn’t good ton.
“Ah, I see you’ve noticed Miss Bradford.” Dering’s low voice reflected a shared appreciation for the lady in question.
So she was a miss, as opposed to a lady. “Bradford, you say?” The name didn’t sound familiar.
“Indeed. She’s new to Bath. Staying with her aunt, Lady Stanwix.”
William leaned back in his chair, nodding slowly. Lady Stanwix. Quality relations, then. The dowager countess was the epitome of a proper English matron. There hadn’t been even a whisper of scandal associated with her or her family since he’d been alive. Now that he was thirty, he did need to start thinking of the future. Producing an heir was his number one duty, after all, and he was nothing if not committed to the title. He made a mental note to add her to the list of acceptable candidates for when he was ready to consider such things.
On the stage below, the girls turned to face the crowd and curtsied. He kept his gaze on Miss Bradford, curiosity about the woman burning even brighter now that he knew a bit of her family.
He liked what he saw. The way she held herself showed innate confidence. A comfort in her own skin. Her chin was raised slightly, a soft smile gracing her full, rose-hued lips. And those high, pert breasts that were so tantalizingly swathed in silk? Perfection. “Perhaps an introduction is in order.”
He surprised himself with the declaration, but apparently not as much as he surprised his friend. Dering made a suspicious noise—was that choked laughter or just a cleared throat?—but by the time William looked back at him, his face carried only an expression of mild helpfulness. “Absolutely. I shall be more than happy to oblige.”
William narrowed his eyes. Dering was definitely amused. The tight waver of his voice was a dead giveaway. But before William could question him to ascertain what he was up to, the music began. Shaking his head, he reluctantly turned back to the stage. As clear, resonant notes began filling the hall, he settled back to enjoy the performance.
The Effington girl was at the piano and was performing a solo as the other two appeared to wait for their cue. William blinked, realizing then that Miss Bradford stood behind the odd instrument he had noticed earlier. Its many strings stretched almost the entire length, an odd combination of harp, guitar, and zither.
She raised her fingers over the strings, and he found himself leaning forward, waiting to hear the beautiful music he was certain someone as lovely as she would produce. Already he could imagine a sort of heavenly and ethereal harplike music, fit for God himself. Her hands descended, as graceful as gull wings soaring on the breeze, and then . . .
What in the world?
Twanging, foreign noise—certainly not music—came pouring forth from the instrument, mangling the otherwise impeccable performance of Mozart’s masterpiece. It was an abomination. He cut a glance toward Dering, whose fingers were tapping gaily against his thigh as he bobbed his head in time with the beat.
“You can’t possibly be enjoying this performance,” William hissed. “It’s rubbish!”
His friend’s expression changed not at all as he continued to tip his head from side to side. “I knew that would be your reaction. I think it’s bloody brilliant, but you, my friend, are a purist.”
He couldn’t be serious. “It was written by a master of the art; of course I’m a purist.”
Dering chuckled, the sound a low rumble in his chest. “Well, you are virtually the only one who thinks so. The trio has been quite popular, hence their performance tonight.”
William sat back and crossed his arms, disappointment washing away his interest of only moments ago. Anyone who could take the work of an absolute master and mangle it beyond recognition—not by poor playing, but by willful disfiguring—was of no interest to him.
For several long minutes, he listened with distaste as the twanging notes continued to rake across his nerves. Dering must be mistaken about their popularity. How could anyone think this fine music? But even as William scowled, the audience’s approval quickly made itself known as the song came to an end, and muffled, enthusiastic clapping of a thousand gloved hands erupted throughout the room.
After letting out a shrill and highly inappropriate whistle, Dering turned toward William and grinned. “Still looking forward to that introduction?”
“I should think not,” William replied firmly, refusing to be drawn in by his friend’s ribbing. He was well aware that many of his peers felt him too conservative by half, and took great pleasure in teasing or even mocking his rigid ways. He cared not a single iota. He took his title and his standing in society exceptionally seriously, and he would not see it tarnished under his watch. When it came to those he associated with, he preferred those with reserved intelligence and a respect for the natural order of things. As far as he was concerned, Miss Bradford’s performance was indicative of a lack of appreciation for the English way.
Dering relaxed against the chair back and smiled. “You are definitely missing out, my friend, but such is your prerogative. I imagine many here would breathe a sigh of relief to know of your disinterest.”
The trio curtsied as one, and from his elevated vantage point, William was treated to a delectable view of Miss Bradford’s décolleté. Against his will, his body took notice. Turning away from the display, he shot his friend an appraising glance. “Are you to be included in the count?”
Dering gave a shrug of his massive shoulders. “I think Miss Bradford and I are very well suited for friendship. I like her quite well, in fact. She’s unlike any woman I’ve ever met.”
Of that, William had no doubt. Already his mind dismissed the girl, pushing aside her startling beauty and unconventional music. “I shall take your word on that.”
* * *
“This may be the last time we play in public, but it shall not be the last time we play,” May declared, giving her dear friends a three-way hug. It was oddly emotional, knowing that the festival was soon coming to an end and the girls would be going their separate ways. As opposed as she had been to coming to Bath in the first place, it was strange to think that she would actually miss it.
Stepping back, Charity shook her head. “Of course not! You must promise to play at my wedding breakfast. Assuming we ever get all the details sorted out.”
“Well, you had best get them sorted out quickly,” May said, giving Charity’s arm a teasing little tap with her fan. “I am determined to be there, but once my father returns, there’s no telling where we will be off to next.”
Perhaps back to China or Indonesia. Java was a frequent stop for her father, so it wasn’t unreasonable that they might head back there. The thought filled her with excitement, but at the same time, it broke her heart to think of leaving her two friends for so long. Lord knew the post was unreliable at best when one was traversing the seas.
Sophie flashed a sly smile and tipped her head toward their friend Mr. Thomas Wright, who was wending his way through the crowd half a dozen feet away. “You could always marry by special license. I know a good vicar who can do the deed for little more than a please and thank you.”
His attention duly captured, Wright flashed a broad smile and veered from his original path. “Did I hear somebody mention a vicar?” His blond brows lifted in teasing mischief. “And to be clear, my fee is a please, a thank you, and an exceptionally good wedding breakfast. Or dinner, I suppose, depending on the time.”
May chuckled at his cheek. He was as fun and affable a fellow as she had met in Bath. “Ever the benevolent soul. Charity, you should consider yourself lucky to be offered such a bargain.”
He nodded, his lips quirked up in that irrepressible smile of his. “Well, for Hugh and his bride, I can certainly make an exception. If you throw in a fortnight at that magnificent oceanfront estate down in Cadgwith, I’ll forgo the meal. Need to visit my sister and the new baby soon, anyhow.”
Charity’s smile broadened. “I cannot wait to meet Felicity and little Isabella. I know she’s only Hugh’s sister-in-law, but that’s close enough to be called family, as far as I’m concerned. And you are most welcome to visit any time, but I’m afraid my parents have insisted that the wedding be held up north at our longtime parish. Are you terribly upset?”
He pretended to consider it before shaking his head. “I suppose, in time, I shall get over the heartbreak. Though Miss Bradford, when it is your turn to spring the parson’s mousetrap, I fully expect to be allowed to do the honors.”
The comment caught her off guard, making her laugh. “Parson’s mousetrap? I certainly hope you won’t be holding your breath, as you will likely be waiting a very long time.” It wasn’t that she was against marriage—indeed, she was wholeheartedly for it—but the idea of finding someone whom she not only loved, but with whom she could share a meeting of mind, values, and personality seemed altogether unlikely. Particularly when one took into account her love of world travel.
“As long as it takes, Miss Bradford, though I can’t imagine you’ll be unmarried for long. You’re delightful in both wit and countenance, neither of which has gone unnoticed, I assure you.” He tipped his chin to indicate the room at large. “Half the men in this room are watching you as we speak, in fact.”
Sophie slipped her arm around May’s elbow. “Yes, but only the best for our May. We won’t let just anyone have her.” She gave a little wink, then abruptly straightened. “Oh drat. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it appears as though your aunt is on the warpath.”
May didn’t even attempt to suppress her disappointed groan. If her aunt was headed their way, then the evening was about to be cut short. As sour as the woman’s mood had been on the way over here, it was a given that listening to May perform on her guzheng would have only worsened her disposition. No doubt she looked forward to nipping any enjoyment May might glean from the evening in the bud.
“How far away is she?”
Charity’s gray gaze flicked over May’s shoulder. “A minute, two if you are lucky.”
Damn it all. After the contentious nature of the ride there, the last thing May wanted to do was abandon her friends and subject herself to what was sure to be a miserable ride home. If May could evade her now, it would be easy enough to get lost in the crush again.
Her mind made up, she sent a meaningful look to her friends. “I have a sudden and overwhelming desire for a spot of tea. Rest assured, I shall return shortly.”
With a quick wave, she hurried away toward the closest door, which she knew led to the Octagon. Traveling along the perimeter, she slipped through to the crowded hall, keeping her gaze to her feet and her walk to a brisk, purposeful pace meant to discourage interruption. The door across the way put her into the Tea Room, where she skirted along the back wall to the farthest possible spot from where her aunt had been.
Pausing to take a breath, she glanced across the sea of finely coifed heads, making certain Aunt Victoria wasn’t in pursuit. “Blast,” she muttered when the bobbing purple ostrich feather came into view. Making a split-second decision, she pulled open the side door and darted into the warm, damp night air, quickly closing the door behind her.
Exhaling, she turned and surveyed her surroundings. She’d never been on this side of the building, which was significantly less polished than the elegant front entrance. A long row of waiting carriages lined the pavement, standing at the ready for whenever their owners should decide to leave. Several surprised drivers glanced over to her, but quickly averted their attention. Obviously well trained, to a man, if they knew not to question the sudden appearance of a gowned and bejeweled young woman dashing from the Assembly Rooms this time of night.
“May I help you?”
May jumped sideways, startled by the clipped words that were chilly enough to freeze the English Channel. Standing in the shadows to the left of the door was a lone figure in dark clothes, a lit cheroot held idly in his left hand.
“I require no assistance, thank you,” she responded, automatically lifting her chin with regal disdain. It was a gesture she hated in her aunt, but it came naturally enough when confronted with a tall, dark, and unwanted stranger.
In the dim light, his eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe it. Did Dering send you out here?” The words were ripe with accusation.
Dering’s name gave her pause. What the devil did he have to do with anything? She was certain she didn’t know this man from Adam. She was also certain that she did not care one bit for the way he spoke to her. “Not at all,” she said coolly. “Why, did he send you out here?”
He threw the half-smoked cheroot to the pavement and ground it beneath his heel. “Nice try, Miss Bradford. You may tell our mutual friend that I was in no way exaggerating when I said I was not interested.” A flick of his eyes communicated his aloof dismissal of her.
Affront flooded through her as she grasped his meaning. Why the conceited, self-centered jackass! How was it that he even knew her name? She had no idea who the man was, and more to the point, she had no desire to know who he was. Her hands went to her hips, heedless of the fact that she was crushing the delicate fabric of her gown. “And you may tell our mutual friend that he needs to be more discerning when choosing his acquaintances. Had he actually arranged this little rendezvous, I would have told him quite plainly of my intention not to associate with arrogant, conclusion-jumping Englishmen.”
He stepped forward, revealing himself to the weak lamplight behind her. Chiseled jaw, long arrow-straight nose, wide, full lips—he wasn’t overtly handsome, but he certainly had an aura of power and authority. Doubtless, he was used to females falling at his feet. Well, she was no ordinary female, unfortunately for him. She stood her ground, glaring right back at him.
One disdainful dark eyebrow lifted as he shook his head slowly. “So the cat hisses when her schemes are ruined. You do yourself and your aunt a grave disservice, Miss Bradford. Now then, turn around and march yourself back inside like a good little debutante. With any luck, perhaps your aunt will never learn of your machinations.”
Machinations? “First of all, you have me at the disadvantage, sir, as I haven’t the least idea of who you are—not that I wish to. Secondly, I have as much a right to be out here as you do. If you have a problem with it, I suggest you march yourself back inside like a good little gentleman.”
“Your Grace,” he bit off.
“My grace . . . what? Leaves you in such awe you cannot finish sentences?”
His eyes narrowed further so that they were little more than dark slits against his pale skin. “You misunderstand. As the Duke of Radcliffe, you should address me as Your Grace.”
She cringed inwardly, only just managing to keep the surprise from her expression. Damnation, this was the Duke of Radcliffe? It would be her luck that she would inadvertently lock horns with one of the most powerful men in all of Britain. The very man, in fact, whom Aunt Victoria had been so worried May would offend.
She took a deep breath, willing herself to close her mouth against his insufferable arrogance. Heaven knew what her aunt would do if she ever learned of this meeting.
Just when she was about to turn and walk away, at the very moment she had convinced herself to ignore the man and his loutish ways, she made the mistake of meeting his gaze. The amount of pure, unadulterated conceit and imperiousness she saw there was like a dagger to her pride. He thought he had put her in her place!
Almost before she even knew what she was about, she crossed her arms and said, “One would think that as duke, you would have a better grasp of proper grammar. Given your sentence structure, you just referred to me as the Duke of Radcliffe.”
It wasn’t a horrible thing to say. Just a little prick to that massive ego to let him know that he had in no way cowed her. Granted, her rejoinder might have been grasping at straws, but in all fairness to herself, it was hard to put together a proper retort when he was looking down his dukish nose at her. The man seemed to radiate authority and power the way coal radiated heat.
“Proper grammar?” he repeated, incredulous. “Perhaps before you devolve into schoolroom lessons on word choice, you might attempt to remember your clearly lacking tutelage on etiquette. Society takes no umbrage at a grown man out alone on darkened streets. Females, on the other hand, should have a care for both their reputation and their personal safety.”
May scowled. Did he think to lecture her like a wayward child? “I have survived darkened streets the world over, Your Grace. Not to mention darkened ships, darkened jungles, and darkened villages. I sincerely doubt a moderately dim street in the middle of Bath shall get the best of me now.”
Excerpted from "The Duke Can Go to the Devil"
Copyright © 2015 Erin Knightley.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Erin Knightley
“Delicious humor, [a] dollop of suspense, and delectable characters.”—Sabrina Jeffries, New York Times bestselling author
“Will delight Regency fans looking to escape London’s stuffy ballrooms…supremely gratifying.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Erin Knightley will delight readers.”—Vicky Dreiling, bestselling author