In Vanessa Kelly’s captivating series, three young women are descended from royalty—in the most improper way. But that doesn’t stop them from pursuing lives rich in adventure. . .
Lia Kincaid, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of York, comes from a long line of notorious women. Raised by her grandmother, formerly mistress to the late Marquess of Lendale, she has little hope of a respectable marriage. But the new marquess, her childhood friend, Jack Easton, would make a very desirable protector . . . if he weren’t too honorable to take her to bed.
It’s bad enough being saddled with a title he never desired. Now Jack must resist the beautiful woman he desires far too much. Duty calls, and he is duty-bound to choose a wealthy bride. But then Lia makes another outrageous suggestion: asking Jack to devise some tests to find her the perfect paramour. Tests that involve flirting, kissing, and other pleasurable pursuits. Tests that, in a matter of weeks, could transform friendship into the ton’s greatest scandal, igniting a passion even duty can’t deny. . .
Praise for Vanessa Kelly’s Renegade Royals series“Will definitely resonate with fans of Mary Jo Putney and Joanne Bourne.” —Booklist
“Kelly combines diverting dialogue, delightful surprises and finely tuned pacing to make this a winner.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
Named by Booklist as one of the “New Stars of Historical Romance,” bestselling author
Vanessa Kelly’s books have been nominated for awards in a number of contests. She is also the recipient of the prestigious Maggie Medallion for historical romance. With a Master’s Degree in English Literature, Vanessa is known for developing vibrant Regency settings, appealing characters, and witty storylines that captivate readers. You can visit her on the web at www.vanessakellyauthor.com.
Read an Excerpt
Three Weeks with a Princess
By Vanessa Kelly
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Vanessa Kelly
All rights reserved.
"How the hell did he let it become such a disaster?" Jack said, pushing aside the ledger. Every time he'd looked at the bloody thing he'd held out a faint hope that circumstances weren't as bad as they appeared. And every time he was wrong.
The large, leather-clad account book was one of several piled haphazardly before him on the library desk. On the other side of that pile sat Atticus Lindsey, the longtime estate manager at Stonefell and a truly estimable man. He had to be, because he'd put up with years of financial messes and managed to ameliorate some of the worst effects. But even Lindsey's business acumen and dedication to the family could no longer stave off the inevitable.
Thanks to Jack's uncle, the previous marquess, Stonefell Hall stood on the brink of ruin, and the Easton family fortunes weren't far behind.
His estate manager struggled to articulate some positive news — and failed.
"It's all right, Lindsey," Jack finally said. "I know we're teetering on the edge of the abyss. The only question now is how to walk ourselves back from it."
The middle-aged widower, whose kind face and gentle manner were combined with a whip-smart mind, pulled a grimace. "There are a few things we can try, my lord. We can take down the remaining viable timber in the home wood, for one. The income from that would stave off the creditors till the next quarter."
Jack hated that idea. So many noble trees had already been lost. Stonefell's woods had once been the finest in this part of Yorkshire, but they were now a pale imitation of their former glory.
"We'll do that only as a last resort," he said. "I'm hoping the harvest will be better this year. The revenues from that should take us well into next year."
Lindsey eyed him. "Of course, sir."
In other words, good luck with that, you bloody fool.
He certainly wouldn't have blamed Lindsey if he'd said those words out loud. Jack had rarely involved himself in estate business, even though he'd known for two years that the Lendale title would fall directly to him. That was when Jack's father, heir to his older brother, had died of apoplexy, brought on by a life of drinking and excess. His father had evaded responsibility whenever possible. Even in death he'd run true to form and had left Jack to pick up the pieces of a family all but in ruins.
As for the recently deceased marquess ... well, Uncle Arthur had been a kind man, loyal to family and friend alike. And he'd been more than generous to Jack, always providing him with a safe haven from his warring parents and helping him achieve a military career by purchasing his commission.
But as a man of business and a caretaker of the family fortune and legacy, the third Marquess of Lendale had been an absolute disaster.
"I'm sorry, my lord," Lindsey said in a tone warm with sympathy. "I wish I had better news to impart, but the tenant farmers are barely holding on as it is. We'll need years of good harvests to make up for the ground we've lost."
Jack repressed the impulse to bang his head on the pile of ledgers. Maybe if he did that long enough the figures would somehow untangle themselves. He'd spent so many late nights pouring over the damn numbers, searching for even a thread of good news, he could barely see straight.
For years he'd tried to escape all the family drama by focusing his energies on his military career. He'd worked his arse off, climbing up the chain of command until serving directly under Wellington himself. And even though the fortunes of war were often bleak, he'd loved his work. If fate had decreed otherwise, he'd still be in the army.
But fate had decreed otherwise, and now he was someone he'd never wanted to be — the Marquess of Lendale. The title had been shared by a disreputable group of aristocrats more known for their spendthrift, rakish lifestyles than for nurturing the blessings graced by God and king.
Well, he'd be damned if he was the one to bring the estate crashing down around his mother and sister. They deserved more than that, as did the tenants and staff who worked at Stonefell and in the mansion in London.
And he could never forget Lia and Rebecca, who were as much his responsibility as anyone else under his care.
"What about that idea you floated in your letter to me a few weeks back, when I was in Lincolnshire?" he asked Lindsey.
He'd been there for the wedding of his closest friend, the Duke of Leverton, to the unconventional Miss Gillian Dryden. It had been a welcome respite from his problems, although their marriage had raised a tricky issue he had yet to work out.
Lindsey brightened. "You mean Stonefell's potential for ore and coal mining? The surveys have yielded some very positive results, but in order to proceed, we need ..."
"Additional investments," Jack said grimly.
"Yes, sir, for more surveys and preliminary explorations. And to go ahead with any sort of comprehensive venture at this point, we would need a substantial investment."
"Would selling the rest of the timber in the home wood be enough to get us started?" Jack loathed the very notion, but he'd be willing to make the sacrifice. A productive mining operation would not only provide jobs for his struggling tenants and villagers, it could alleviate the debts encumbering the estate.
"I'm afraid not," Lindsey said with a regretful shake of the head. "There's no doubt we need outside backers to establish a viable operation."
But any investor worth his salt would want to see profits as soon as possible. No one would be inclined to invest if they had to wait several years until Jack restored the estate to health. There was another alternative, of course, but he wasn't particularly thrilled about that one either.
He closed the ledger in front of him with a thud. "I think we've both depressed ourselves enough for one day, Lindsey. I'll be traveling to London in a few weeks. I will speak to my bankers about finding potential — and patient — investors while I'm there."
Lindsey stood up. "Very good, my lord. I can put out feelers to a few private investors when I'm next in Ripon, if you like."
"Do that but quietly. We don't need word getting around that things are as bad as they are."
"As you wish."
After Lindsey collected the ledgers and soft-footed his way out, Jack eyed the remaining work on his desk. It felt as if he'd been confined to the stuffy old room forever. Normally, his uncle's library — his library now — was a favorite place to while away the time. It had always been a welcoming retreat, with its elegant Queen Anne furniture richly mellowed by age, a collection of books lovingly built up over the generations, and several truly impressive globes his uncle had acquired over the years. The handsome room spoke of the taste, wealth, and power of the Lendale line.
Today it felt more like a prison.
He stood and headed for the French doors, his hand automatically reaching out to spin the largest and oldest of the globes as he passed.
You really ought to sell that, old boy, along with the rest of them.
It just might come to that. Along with the antique volumes on the shelves, the globes would attract a pretty sum from a collector.
Shoving aside that unpleasant thought, he stepped onto the terrace, lifting his face to the late afternoon sun. It had been a cool, rainy summer, so even a hint of sunshine was welcome.
He gazed out over this little piece of his domain. The flower gardens behind the house had always been a pleasing mix of roses, flowering shrubs, and hedges. And although the roses still bloomed thick and full, and the ivy and honeysuckle twined lushly along the stone balustrades of the terrace, the garden was no longer up to its previous immaculate standards. The hedges looked a bit ragged, the roses verged on running wild, and the lawn was just a little too long. Old Merton, the head gardener, was doing his best, but Lindsey had been forced to let some outside staff go last year. Only the kitchen gardens were still in top shape, and that was thanks to Lia. According to the housekeeper, she diligently helped Merton tend the extensive herb and vegetable gardens that kept the house abundantly supplied.
Lia, what am I going to do with you?
Though he'd only returned to Stonefell two days before, he'd been avoiding her, which was a new and unwelcome development. Jack had loved the girl almost from the moment he'd met her, back when she'd been an engaging, mischief-prone toddler. Lia was family as far as he was concerned.
But she was also his friend, and a very good one. Although she was five years younger, Jack had long trusted her judgment. Lia was both funny and kind, but she also had an enormously practical head on her slim shoulders. After Lindsey, she knew more about the running of the estate than anyone. She'd grown up here, loving it with a fierce devotion that surpassed that of any member of the Easton family.
Unfortunately, that devotion to Stonefell was about to be poorly repaid. Of all the people on the estate, Lia and Rebecca Kincaid were the most vulnerable.
He couldn't put off imparting the grim news any longer. He counted it as ironic that when he could finally see his dear friend as often as he wanted, he was doing everything he could to avoid her.
Using the gate at the bottom of the garden, he strode along the pretty, tree-lined lane that led to Bluebell Cottage. Once a small dower house, Uncle Arthur had converted it into a private abode for his mistress. It was far enough from the main house to be out of sight and out of mind, when necessary, but still close enough for the previous marquess to easily visit the once-notorious Rebecca Kincaid whenever he wished. It had always struck Jack as a medieval arrangement that was manifestly unfair to both Rebecca and her granddaughter. Of course, he'd grown used to the odd situation over the years, as had most in the neighborhood, especially those who depended on the estate for their livelihood. That the marquess had loved his mistress with an abiding passion had never been in doubt, and he'd expected everyone in his circle to accept her presence as an immutable fact of life.
Jack's mother, naturally, had never accepted it. And now that he was the Marquess of Lendale, she expected him to do what she called the moral thing.
As he rounded a curve in the lane, the red slate roof of the cottage came into view, its old chimneys poking above the trees. More a small villa than a rustic abode, Bluebell Cottage was built with the sharp angles and pitched roof of the Jacobean era. Set well back from the lane and shaded by ash and sycamore trees, it was surrounded by an old-fashioned flower garden with a spectacular display of rosebushes. But unlike the larger garden at the main house, Bluebell's flower beds were pristinely maintained, flourishing under an expert hand.
Lia's hand. She'd always loved to garden and had never minded getting dirty and wet. As a little girl, she'd been Merton's shadow, imitating his every move. Her enthusiasm and cheery ways had charmed the crusty old gardener, and almost everyone else at Stonefell Hall.
Jack had always believed Lia was the true reason Rebecca had finally been accepted by the estate staff and the locals. Setting up one's mistress in the backyard wasn't generally the done thing, but with Lia's unwitting help, his uncle had pulled it off.
He rapped on the front door. After waiting a few minutes, he hammered again. One of the mullioned windows of the drawing room, to the right of the door, pushed open. Rebecca, her beautifully coiffed, salt-and-pepper hair, topped by a snowy white cap, leaned out.
"Ah, my dear Lord Lendale," she said in an affectionate voice. "I haven't a clue where Sarah is, or Lia, for that matter, and the maid has run down to the village to fetch some headache powders. But the door is open, so do let yourself in."
She retreated with consummate dignity, shutting the window.
Jack couldn't hold back a grin. Leave it to Rebecca to tell the new marquess to walk right in rather than condescend to answer the door herself. Her present position might be precarious but she had been the longtime lover of the Marquess of Lendale and once had been the most sought-after courtesan in London. Although a truly kind and charming woman, she never let the world forget who she was, nor who she once had been.
Not that he blamed her. She didn't have anything else to hang on to now that the man she'd loved for so many years — the man for whom she'd given up so much — was dead.
Jack let himself into the low-ceilinged corridor that ran from the front of the house to the back. A narrow staircase halfway down the hall climbed up to the first floor, with its bedrooms and a private sitting room. It was a lovely old house, with intricate woodwork and paneling, as well as some truly fine plasterwork.
But it was in dire need of repair, especially the roof and chimneys.
He knocked briefly on the drawing room door, which was rather silly because Rebecca was expecting him. But she drew comfort from the formalities, and Jack wished her to know that she still had his respect and friendship, even if she had lost all else.
She moved to greet him. Now in her early sixties, she remained an extremely handsome woman, with a plump, comfortable figure and a welcoming manner. But despite her genuinely pleased smile, he saw sadness in her gaze and weariness in the faint web of wrinkles fanning out from her blue eyes. It had been over three months since his uncle's passing, but Rebecca clearly still grieved. The poor woman had been, for all intents and purposes, the man's wife. And yet she'd been denied even the solace of attending the church services or receiving the sympathy of family and friends.
"Aunt Rebecca, it's good to see you," Jack said, bending to brush a kiss against her cheek. He'd referred to her that way in private for years, which had always pleased his uncle.
"Dear boy, it is so good of you to call," she said, waving him to the settee across from her high-backed chair. "Lia and I were beginning to quite despair of seeing you."
"I apologize for not coming down yesterday. I find myself swamped in paperwork and an endless stream of ... business." He'd been about to say disasters.
"I'm sure you have a great deal of work to attend to, settling the estate and becoming familiar with your new responsibilities. If you need help, you must be sure to ask Lia. Sometimes I think she knows Stonefell as well as Mr. Lindsey."
"She does," he said with a smile. "By the by, where is she?"
Rebecca glanced at the watch pinned to her waist. "I'm surprised you didn't run into her in the lane; she said she'd be home by now. She ran up to the stables to speak to the stableman about her mare. I think Dorcas may be in need of new shoes." She hesitated. "If it's not too much of a bother, that is."
Jack's uncle had always let Lia ride any horse she chose, even picking one out for her special use.
"You needn't even ask."
"Thank you," she said, sounding relieved. "We hate to impose, but you know Lia wouldn't ask if it wasn't necessary." "Please don't worry, Aunt Rebecca. Now, tell me how you've been. I hope you're well."
As they chatted for a few minutes about the usual mundane things like the weather, Rebecca was clearly making an effort to be cheerful. But Jack could tell it was a strain. His uncle had been the touchstone of her increasingly narrow and circumscribed life. Without him, she must feel her future uncertain.
"And how was your trip to Lincolnshire?" she asked. "I presume the Duke of Leverton's wedding went off without a hitch." Her carefully neutral tone didn't fool Jack in the slightest.
"It was a small, private affair but very happy nonetheless. And I'm glad Lia's not back yet because I wanted to talk to you about that."
"Yes, I expect you do," she said with a rueful smile. "You want to know whether you should tell Lia that Gillian Dryden — the new Duchess of Leverton — is her cousin."
He'd been struggling with that question for some weeks. Leverton was his closest friend, which meant Gillian would now be part of Jack's life. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, the fifth son of King George and brother to the Prince Regent. Because Lia was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of York, the second son of the king, she and Gillian were cousins.
"Yes," he said. "Naturally I knew I had to discuss the situation with you first. But you must understand there may come a point when Leverton and his duchess will visit Stonefell."
Though dismay flashed across Rebecca's features, her impressive discipline soon reasserted itself. "That's to be expected, naturally. As you know, your uncle rarely entertained due to his health." She forced a smile. "But such will not be the case with you, I'm sure. You will wish to entertain friends, as well as your mother and sister."
Excerpted from Three Weeks with a Princess by Vanessa Kelly. Copyright © 2017 Vanessa Kelly. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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