An Untamable Lady for the Duke – Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

He is obsessed with perfection, she is the paragon of imperfection..

 

Having lost her parents at a young age, Susanna grew up with her godmother, a respectable, if not a bit terrifying, spinster who mostly let her do what she wanted. Always lost in her books and in the long walks in nature she adores, she is unlike any other lady of the ton. 

 

Anthony is a man obsessed with perfection and order. His paintings are as pristine as his business affairs, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. The women that he chooses are nothing less than paragons of beauty and grace. Until he meets the untamable Susanna, and can’t get her out of his head.

 

Susanna and Anthony’s opposite outlooks on life instantly crash, but soon, intrigued by each other, they make a deal: he will teach her what proper etiquette and decorum have to offer, and she will teach him that imperfections can be thrilling. But when she goes inexplicably missing, the duke is faced with a cold realization: if he doesn’t act fast, he might never see her again.

Chapter One

Chapter One

London, England

“There will be no incidents today. Routine, that is what I need. It is all I ever need.” The moment Anthony urged the steed out of the stable, he sighed with a sort of contentment.

All is in place and in order.

The grey horse was a handsome animal, well-structured and proportioned, worth the money Anthony had spent on him. The steed had proven a pleasant companion repeatedly on Anthony’s morning rides.

Urging the animal away from the stable, Anthony started slowly. Never did he gallop too fast, fearful of how it would look to a passerby. No, he must be seen to be in control at all times; that was the way of things.

What else is expected of a duke, after all?

He laughed gently at his own thought and turned the animal out of the estate, toward the parkland beyond.

This morning routine he found helped him these days. The regularity of it, the perfection of going out on the same day and doing the same ride sat well within his heart. It brought him rhythm, and it was a rhythm he liked very much. Sitting tall in the saddle and adjusting his top hat so that it sat at the perfect angle on his head, he turned the grey steed to ride far from the drive and head down toward the parkland estate that stretched beyond.

When a path opened out into the public parkland, he angled his horse onto his usual path. The birds in the nearby trees chirped and hastened off. In the distance, he could hear the ducks landing in water, showing he was not far from the nearby river. Turning the horse’s nose toward this second path, he angled himself to the river.

Seeing he was not alone today, he slowed the pace of the horse. Clearing his throat, he adjusted his cravat a little more and the sleeves of his jacket.

Everything must be just so…

Curving along the side of the river, he found a group of ladies and gentlemen, ready for their promenade.

“Good morning.” He tipped his hat to them all, fully aware of the way all their eyes danced across him. The ladies admired him and fluttered their eyelashes beneath their bonnets. He didn’t doubt they did it just because they knew he was a duke. The gentleman stared too, possibly because of the fineness of the animal or his clothes, he wasn’t sure.

Urging the steed ahead again, he took a darker path through the parkland.

Routine, rhythm, this will help me prepare for the day.

This path was somewhat swathed by trees. Few people walked down here, especially this early in the morning. Most days, Anthony had the run of the forest to himself. He could quite easily happily trot down this road and not have to tip his hat to anything but the birds that would flutter past him.

That’s why the sound of a second horse startled him so much.

Jerking his head to the side, Anthony felt his dark hair dance across his forehead. He reached up and tucked away those tendrils so that they were hidden beneath the top hat as he searched for this other horse.

He could hear the thuds of the galloping hooves, heavy and fast. Someone was riding at such a great speed, somewhere, that it was as if the fire of hell was at their heels.

Feeling the brush of wind whipping past him, Anthony flicked round in the saddle.

He saw the green leaves of the nearby trees dance, rippled by the energy of the other rider that had chosen not to take the path but carve their own through the trees.

“What the…” Anthony trailed off. He had seen no more of this rider other than the black hair of the horse then they were gone through the thicket of trees once again.

Something must be wrong, gravely wrong, for why else would someone have cause to ride like that?

Anthony rode on though he picked up the pace a little, at all times keeping to his path. He kept angling forward in his saddle, upsetting the line of his top hat on his brow, as he searched for this other rider. They had disappeared completely from view.

Anthony sighed and sat back in the saddle. He was just beginning to think the whole incident had been a wild imagining when it happened again.

“Look out!” a voice cried.

He turned round in the saddle to see the rider coming past him. They appeared from the tree line in front of him, cutting into the path and then leaving again on the other side, ending up back in the trees.

“God’s wounds!” Anthony had to pull harshly on his reins to stop his steed from being spooked and bolting.

His gaze shot across the rider, barely getting a glimpse of her before she was gone again.

Wait… she!

It was unmistakably a woman. She was riding in the trees nearby again, wearing a dark navy cloak that was fastened tightly at her shoulders, yet it billowed behind her in the wind that she was creating from galloping. It revealed the gown beneath, a pastel blue. It was her hair that was the most noticeable though, for she had not worn it up.

Scandalous. What lady would go out in such a way?

Her hair was madly curled with brown wisps flying in the wind.

“My Lady? My Lady!” Anthony found himself calling to her. He could feel it in his gut. Something had to be very wrong to make a woman ride so fast through the park and to wear her hair in such a state.

He rode forward again. This time, he dared to gallop, pushing the horse harder though, still, he kept to the path, never once straying from it.

For a second, he thought he lost the mysterious rider. Her dark horse disappeared through the thicket of lush greens and dark branches then he caught sight of those mad curls through a tree full of blossom petals, so he darted forward again.

It took some time to catch up with her. Anthony was forced to bend down over the neck of his steed and pull his top hat lower than usual over his brow in order not to lose it. When his horse drew level with hers, she appeared once again in the path.

“My Lady!”

“Oh, my goodness!” she squealed, nearly colliding her horse with his own, for she had clearly not seen him properly through the trees nor expected him to be so nearby. Anthony was forced to jerk on the reins of his animal, pulling the grey to a harsh stop as the lady appeared directly in front of him. “I did not think you would ride so fast.” She laughed heartily and tipped her head back, revealing an unrestrained smile.

Anthony flinched at the sight of it. He could not remember seeing a woman laugh with such abandon before.

“Is all well?” he asked, plainly panicked.

“Well?” She seemed confused, lowering her head enough for him to have a proper look at her face.

Those eyes…

He was struck, instantly. They were brown, he could see that at this distance, for they were so large in her face, dominating the rosy cheeks and broad smile.

“Forgive me.” He tried to look away from her, down at her horse.

A gentleman should not stare. I know that.

“To see a lady ride like that, and in your state, of course, I presumed something must be wrong.” He motioned toward her. “I know I am but a stranger, but please, I will help if I can.”

“My state?” She seemed puzzled with her brows furrowed together then relaxed as she giggled once again. Lifting her hand to her lips to cover the breadth of that laugh, Anthony noticed something else about this mysterious woman.

She is not wearing riding gloves.

He didn’t doubt the coarseness of the leather reins would be cutting into the palms of her hands, perhaps even grazing her, but she didn’t appear to have noticed this.

“When you refer to my state, you must be referring to this?” She passed a hand through the curls of her hair. Something happened inside of Anthony at that touch.

For a second, he could imagine himself doing the same thing, weaving his hands through that hair.

What has happened to me?

“Tell me, stranger,” she said with something of a mischievous smile upon her wide lips, “is it so scandalous to not wear one’s hair in a chignon?”

His horse pranced forward a step until they were face to face with their horses’ noses nearly touching. His horse snorted whilst the other one whinnied as if greeting one another.

“Well…” Anthony didn’t answer right away. He watched as the lady gestured to his own hand.

“I warrant you do not wear your hair in a chignon or some other fancy updo each day. Therefore, why should I?”

“This was not a conversation I was expecting.” Anthony laughed a little before controlling himself, staring at the lady again.

They were in quite a secluded part of the forest now. The leaves were close in around them, and the pollen too danced in the air, appearing like dust that hovered in the streaks of sunlight that streamed between the trees. The lady brushed away some of the pollen from her face as she returned her focus to him.

“I came to ascertain you were well, My Lady,” he explained, trying to be serious and return the conversation to something he was more used to.

“Perfectly.” The lady shrugged as if there was nothing wrong in the world.

“But you were riding as if…” He trailed off and waved a mad hand to the path he had just come down.

“As if…?” she encouraged him to finish, raising her eyebrows as she did so.

“As if a madman were chasing you,” he said with vigor. “Or something dreadful had befallen.”

“Dreadful?” She shook her head, her smile falling from her face. “It is a kindness, stranger, for you to worry for me so, but you need not fear. I do not ride like this because of something dreadful. I ride for my own amusement.”

Anthony felt as if the wind had been taken from him. He cocked his head to the side, analyzing the lady a little more. When his top hat nearly fell off, he reached up, planting it down firmly.

“Oh, dear,” she said, pretending to be aghast. “Have I offended you? I hope I have not. It was not my intention, after all.”

“I just do not understand.” He shook his head once more. “You were rather destroying the peace.” He was startled to see his words amused her, and she laughed again.

“Who rides for peace? I certainly do not.” With these words, she turned the horse, angling in the other direction though she didn’t ride away quite yet. Instead, she glanced back at him with those bold eyes pinning him to the spot. “Is that what you ride for, stranger? For peace.”

“Undoubtedly.” He found his words came out rather deeper than he had expected. His eyes were darting over her countenance now, taking in more of her. There was a leaf trapped in her hair though she didn’t appear to have noticed, and there was dirt upon her cloak.

Surely, she is not a lady from the ton to ride and be like this in public?

Yet the gown he could glimpse beneath her cloak suggested that she very much was.

“Are you a lady of the ton?” he asked, unable to keep in his curiosity. She trotted forward a few steps. Determined not to lose her, he hurried the grey to ride alongside her, glad this time she had chosen a much slower pace.

“What would that matter?” she asked, glancing at him in such a way that he abruptly felt guilty for asking.

Was that a bad thing to ask?

“I did not mean anything by it. Simply that it is not normal for a young lady…” he trailed off again. Anthony shifted his gloved hands on his reins, frustrated at himself. He was usually so confident of what to say, yet in this moment, he was so befuddled by this lady’s appearance, he found he did not know what to say at all.

“Oh, do not feel you must finish the sentence, stranger,” she said and tilted her head forward, turning those dark eyes on the path down the road. “I know very well what most gentlemen and ladies would say to see a lady riding in such a way. I hardly care to hear what they think, I am afraid.” She shifted her focus back toward him. “The fact your jaw has nearly landed on your poor steed’s head shows me how much I have surprised you.”

She was clearly amused, pointing at his expression. Anthony closed his slackened jaw, struggling for words once again.

“It is just not something one comes across every day.”

“And you come here every day, do you?” she asked.

“Well, yes.” His words made her pull the horse to a sudden stop.

“Every day?” she repeated, her eyes so wide he found it rather difficult to look away.

“Why is that so amazing?”

“Would you never wish to ride your horse elsewhere, stranger?”

“I am happy as I am.” Anthony shifted his hold on the reins once again, discomforted by this conversation. As intrigued as he was by this mysterious woman, he was considering turning and riding his horse away, perhaps outriding her with speed.

When was the last time I rode my horse with such abandon?

“Ah, then I can see why my appearance this morning might have upset someone who likes a certain amount of routine.” The words she had chosen made him jerk the horse forward a step.

I like my routine.

“Care for a race, stranger?” she asked, gesturing ahead to the path. “We could alter your routine for one day.”

“A race? No, I could not say yes.” He couldn’t help smiling, feeling tempted by it. There was something quite scandalous about seeing the lady ride with abandon as he had done seconds ago. He knew he shouldn’t want to, but something in his gut rather liked the idea of seeing her ride in such a way again.

“Whyever not? Are you fearful a lady could beat you in a race?” she asked, moving her horse so that they were standing side by side as if a starting line were in front of them.

“That is not what I said.”

“Is it what you thought?” When he didn’t answer her, she laughed again. “I thought as much.” He smiled too.

This was not what I was expecting from this morning.

“One race, stranger?” she asked, holding up her finger. “Then I promise to leave you alone.”

“One race? Perhaps. What does the winner get?”

“Oh, pride alone, I would not wager anything more.” She turned her head forward. “The first one to reach that fence on the far side of this path. What do you say?”

He looked ahead, scarcely able to see the path from where they were.

“Very well. On three?”

“One…”

“Two…” He couldn’t help joining in the count.

“Three!” She leapt ahead on three, and Anthony hastened to follow behind her.

The beginning of the race was hurried and relentless. He had not expected the lady to go off with so much vigor, and he was forced to adapt his position. He could no longer sit in the saddle, but he had to ride with his feet in the stirrups, and his body lifted, bent over the head of the horse.

When did I last ride like this?

He couldn’t remember feeling the wind in this way, making his top hat slip back on his head, and ripple his clothes. Nor could he remember this sort of thrill.

She streaked ahead. It didn’t seem to matter how much Anthony urged on the grey that had cost him so much money. Together, he and the steed could not match the mysterious lady and her black horse. The two pulled far ahead.

Anthony urged the grey on more, whipping the reins, but his top hat slid completely off his head and fell to the ground.

No!

They were reaching the edge of the race now. With the fence in view, Anthony was ready to slow down so that he did not collide with the fence.

“You win, My Lady!” he called after her as he pulled on the horse’s reins. Yet, she didn’t slow. If anything, she sped up. “My Lady!” Anthony felt the fear rise as if his heart had leapt into his throat then he watched, jaw agape again, as the lady made her steed jump.

The two of them together leapt the fence at the end of the path. They landed in the field beyond, easily. Never had they been in danger of scraping the fence at all.

Anthony froze, staring after the lady as she turned her horse round and smiled at him over the fence line.

“I have won my pride, I see,” she said with victory and a wide smile. “I hope you will not doubt the skills of a lady when it comes to riding again, stranger.” With these final words, she turned her horse, laughing jovially once again, then she was gone.

She rode with equal freedom as she had done before, cutting across an open field to another line of trees beyond. He watched her go, unsure what to say or think, rather startled by the way her mad hair still danced behind her.

Only when she was gone from sight did he turn back to amble along the path again. Finding his top hat, he jumped down at the side of the horse and picked up the hat. The beaver fur was dampened by dirt and mottled by dust. He did his best to knock off the dirt, knowing exactly what his mother would say at such a sight.

“It is not becoming of a duke, is it? To bear such dirt upon you.”

Yet Anthony could not dwell on the thought. His eyes were back on the field and the very spot where the lady had disappeared.

He had this urge to return home to his paints. He had never painted anything less than perfection before, but now, a new idea made him curious.

What would it be like to paint a lady so unbound by propriety?

Chapter Two

Chapter Two

 

“Agnes, must we go to this thing?”

“A thing? Ha! Only you, dear child, would call a ball a ‘thing.’” The lady beside Susanna laughed heartily then circled Susanna as she sat at the vanity table, fussing with her hair. “I rather like the way Peggy has done your hair this evening. Quite elegant.”

Susanna wrinkled her nose at the words as she stared into the mirror. Even now she could see the way her curly hair was desperately trying to escape the updo it had been placed in. Each wave fought loose, and some wisps hung down by her chin, rather more so than other ladies’ hair would be loose tonight.

“I just do not see what good comes from attending a ball.” Susanna waited until her godmother bent down a little so that her face could be reflected in the mirror.

Agnes Egerton, known to most as the Dowager Marchioness of Follet, was rather a force to be reckoned with. Bearing sharp features, eyes so dark they were almost black, and hair pulled tight on her head, she had a habit of commanding attention in any room. It was something Agnes loved and another reason why Susanna loved her godmother so much. Agnes did not like to be like other women of the ton. She would often say, ‘if people are going to look at me, I might as well amaze them too.’

She was no wilting flower, modest and humble in the corner of a ballroom, nor had she ever been.

“I am a dowager marchioness, do I need to remind you?” she said, her lips curving into a smile. “I must attend a ball. It will be expected of me.”

“Since when do you do what the ton expect of you?” Susanna asked, watching as her godmother laughed.

“Well, perhaps I like to defy them a little.” She stood straight and fussed with Susanna’s hair once more. “My long spinsterhood has certainly raised eyebrows.”

“So, if we are happy to defy expectations, why must we go tonight?” Susanna asked. She fiddled with the dance card Agnes had given her. It sat uncomfortably on her wrist, tied there by a small ribbon. “I’d much rather stay here.”

“Would you? Or would you rather be riding?” Agnes’ words made Susanna sit bolt straight and whip round on the stool. “Ah, did you think I had not noticed the number of times you sneak off to ride?” Agnes laughed with her words. “You came back gleaming this morning— covered in mud too, as your maid pointed out to me.”

“Peggy is not a fan of cleaning dirt,” Susanna said, feeling guilty for her maid and good friend who had to clean up the mud.

“You can go riding again tomorrow. Tonight, we shall attend a ball.” Agnes took Susanna’s hand and pulled her to her feet.

Susannah sighed and let her godmother steer her around the room until she was facing a mirror.

In truth, Susanna had not been able to forget her last ride from that very morning. It had been exhilarating, racing through the park and woodland so early that there were only a few people around.

Apart from the stranger.

She thought back to the well-dressed gentleman whom she had startled on her ride — the one with his top hat at a perfect angle and clothes so smart that she wondered if he ever had mud on them, even when he went riding.

What an interesting meeting that had been!

She couldn’t get out of her mind the way he had looked at her. It wasn’t exactly disapproval like the rest of the ton often gazed her way. It was as if he felt this burning curiosity. She had rather liked that look.

“There, quite beautiful.” Agnes smiled as she flattened out the skirt of Susanna’s gown. “You look so like your mother.”

Susanna smiled rather sadly as she turned her gaze upon her reflection. It had been a long time now since she had lost her mother and come to live with her godmother, but it didn’t seem to change much. No matter how many years passed, she still missed her mother.

Susanna knew she was very like her. The same tall height, the same curvy stature, and the wildness of hair that refused to be tamed. Even now, Agnes tried to tame one curl that had separated itself from the rest. Turning her focus away from it, Susanna looked down at the gown she was wearing.

Ivory white, the gown rather gleamed in the last light of the day that shone through the window. She feared in her short walk to the carriage, she would ruin it, for such a material would show the slightest stain.

“There. All ready!” Agnes declared and offered her arm to Susanna.

“I suppose if we must go, we must.”

“Have no fear. I will be there all evening,” Agnes proclaimed reassuringly as Susanna took her arm. “If you and I grow bored of the company there, we shall simply talk to each other all night instead.”

“I would like that!” Susanna said with eagerness. She hurried alongside Agnes, out of the room, heading for the staircase. It was not as if Susanna didn’t have friends, she did, but she also knew there were plenty who looked down at her.

At the age of twenty-three, she was quickly earning the title of ‘spinster’. Not that she minded. She’d rather be free, particularly free of a husband as her godmother was. Sometimes the whispers would get to Susanna though. She would hear people murmuring and pointing her way, clearly thinking ill of her appearance.

I do not concern myself with them. After all, I live to make myself happy. I do not live to please others. Life is too short to think otherwise.

It was something her mother had once said.

As they hastened down the staircase and hurried through the hall to where the carriage was prepared outside, they were passed thin pelisses by the butler and Peggy before they were ushered into the carriage. As it took off, jolting them from side to side, Susanna couldn’t help looking back longingly at the house.

She had many books upstairs that she would have much rather spent her time with that evening. Yet, it was not to be. She was to attend a ball and make polite conversation.

“Have no fear, dear child,” Agnes said, addressing Susanna with such a soft tone that Susanna looked away from the carriage window. Agnes was smiling sweetly at her. “Not everyone in the ton is wholly bad.”

When Susanna raised her eyebrows, Agnes chuckled. “I suppose I have not helped your opinion of them, have I? I have always been a little keen to complain about them.”

“I have not seen much to refute your complaints,” Susanna acknowledged. “Did you know when we went for tea at Countess Rumpton’s the other week, her daughters spent fifteen minutes saying why I was wrong to be fascinated by the flowers they were growing. They kept saying I sounded like their gardener, and a lady shouldn’t concern herself with such things.”

“What nonsense!”

“That is what I thought,” Susanna agreed, folding her arms tightly across her body.

“My advice would be to avoid the Countess’ daughters tonight,” Agnes spoke hurriedly. “Do as I do, Susanna. Find those who company you enjoy in the ton, and do not waste your time with those who are only there to think ill of others. Find friends you like, and give them your time.”

“I have Donald, but I suppose I could make a few more friends,” Susanna admitted slowly. She looked down at the white gloves on her hands, for they were misaligned a little. She didn’t bother to right them. “It would be nice to have someone else I could talk to at these events who was interested in the conversations I am fascinated with. Even Countess Rumpton raised her eyebrows when I started speaking of my books.”

“The Countess is not a great reader.” Agnes sighed as if it was the greatest disappointment. “She concerns herself with the beauty of a pearl or the height of a hemline. Yes, if you are to find a new friend, let it be someone altogether… different.”

“Different?” Susanna said, intrigued by the word.

“Let them be someone like you.” Agnes sat forward on the carriage bench, holding Susanna’s gaze. “Surely it cannot be too hard to find another free spirit hiding somewhere in the ton?”

“Well, I guess we shall have to see.”

***

“It is very beautiful,” Susanna murmured as she stood beside her godmother. Agnes was already lost in conversation with two ladies beside her. It gave Susanna the opportunity to admire the beauty of the decorations around her.

The Countess Rumpton’s ball had been decorated grandly for the event. Candelabras were decked with white roses, and not a single one was out of place or marred by blackened petals. The tables that sparkled with crystal glasses had tiny white daisies spread between them, each one picked just perfectly so that not a hint of the stem could be seen.

Susanna couldn’t help admiring the candelabra closest to her, running a hand over the petals of one of the roses.

“Careful,” Agnes whispered to her, breaking off from the conversation she was having with her friends beside her. “You do not wish to snap one off, do you?”

“I will not snap… ah.” Susanna paused, prompting her godmother to laugh. In her adoration of the flowers, she had indeed picked one off. “Well, it was only fastened by the thinnest of twine.” Susanna tried a few times to put it back in place, yet it never quite looked perfect again. In the end, she snapped off the rose completely and kept it in her hand.

“Goodness, dear child. Move away from the candelabra before you cause any more trouble.” Agnes tugged on Susanna’s arm and led her to her two friends. “Julianna, Marie, I enlist your help.”

“Our help? Whatever for?” Julianna asked. Known as Lady Dalwhimphle to her more formal friends, she was a widow and had the virtue of remaining unmarried for a long a time, a lot like Agnes, thanks to the wealth that had befallen her. She turned her eagle-shaped head in Susanna’s direction.

“I am determined to find Susanna a new friend amongst the ton.”

“I have Donald, Agnes,” Susanna tried to remind her godmother.

“Yes, but one needs more than one friend.”

“Oh, Agnes,” Susanna sighed with the word, feeling the embarrassment bleed in her cheeks until she turned red.

“Are we looking for a friend? Or a husband?” Julianna asked.

“A friend!” Susanna replied so fast that all three ladies laughed.

I have no wish to be married.

Susanna knew well enough what would happen if she married. Had she not heard of the situation time and time again from Agnes? How a woman’s freedoms could be stifled by giving herself to a man?

“Just a friend, please,” Susanna reiterated, her voice a little slower this time.

“What a shame, because I could have pointed out plenty of possible husbands.” Julianna tapped her chin with the words and looked around the room. “Baron Rusk, for instance. Quite the gentleman.” She gestured to a tall and rather portly man.

“Quite the elderly gentleman indeed,” Susanna whispered, prompting Agnes to laugh so hard into her glass of champagne that she seemed to blow more bubbles in the hazy liquid.

“What of Lord Edgeware?” Marie asked. Agnes’ other friend, Lady Marie Sinclair, was still very much married though she and her husband lived entirely different lives, much to her own delight. “Now, he certainly is of a good age to be married.”

“Certainly.” Susanna nodded in agreement. “Though I doubt he has the inclination. Did you not hear the rumors of Lord Edgeware and his butler?”

Agnes laughed once again at Susanna’s side. Julianna and Marie exchanged certain looks as if they thought Susanna should not be so bold, but her godmother did not reprimand her. She had a habit of letting Susanna speak her mind.

“What of the Duke of Belbridge then?” Julianna suggested, pointing through the crowd.

I do not know him by sight.

Susanna turned her head, seeking out the man. That’s when she noticed the gentleman properly. He was striding across the room, rather formally, with his suit so pristine it must have taken forever for his valet to prepare it. What struck Susanna most though was his face.

I know him. I have seen him before. This very morning!

He was the stranger she had raced on her ride through the park.

“Oh, my, she has no complaint to make against him, does she?” Agnes said from beside her.

“Hmm?” Susanna was distracted, barely taking note of what was said around her. She could not take her eyes off this gentleman.

He was as handsome as she had thought him to be that morning. He was tall, incredibly so, towering over other men in the room with hair so black that the deepest night sky could not rival it. It was coiffed excessively, slicked in such a way that not a hair was out of place. It made her very aware of her own mad curls. He had a strong jaw and a stern brow, but she could remember still how that face had lit up with his smiles that morning.

It is like the night sky when the moon comes out. Suddenly brightened!

Then, he turned. He seemed to be looking for someone in the room. That’s when his eyes found hers.

He didn’t look away. They just stood there for a minute, each staring, with a sea of other people between them.

“Susanna, I said, do you know the Duke?”

“I’m sorry?” Susanna whipped round to face Agnes. She tried to forget the burning feeling of the Duke of Belbridge staring at her in such a way.

My, my, I raced a Duke! I was so outspoken to him too. How funny!

The idea amused Susanna greatly, making it all the more difficult to concentrate on what Agnes was saying.

“Do you know the Duke, Susanna?” Agnes asked again. “I only ask because you seem to be looking at each other rather intently. Not to mention he is currently walking this way.”

“He is not,” Susanna murmured, only to look round and see that it was true. “Oh, he is.”

“I say we make ourselves scarce,” Agnes cajoled her friends. “I am old now and do not doubt my goddaughter would not thank me for embarrassing her in front of a duke.”

“Agnes, don’t leave me.” Susanna reached out to take her godmother’s arm, but she was too late. Agnes had already taken the arms of her friends and hurried off, leaving Susanna conveniently behind.

He’s very close now!

Susanna didn’t know whether to be embarrassed and feel her face flush bright red or to laugh at the absurdity of it all. He was a Duke, and now he was coming to speak to her.

When he reached her side and bowed, she hurried to curtsy too, yet it was a little fumbled.

Well, I never was very good at such formal things.

“Did you come for a formal introduction, Your Grace?” she asked, standing straight, and meeting his gaze once again.

“Your Grace?” A smile grew on his face. Once more, the dark features were instantly lightened. “Ah, I see you have learnt my identity. I am no longer to be addressed as ‘stranger’, then?”

“I have indeed.” Susanna was rather intrigued by this meeting. There were plenty of people at this event, and the Duke could have gone to speak to any of them. Why had he come to speak to her?

“You have an advantage over me, then. For I do not know your name.” He gestured to her. “After such a hint, this is usually the moment where a lady introduces herself.”

“I am not like most ladies,” Susanna murmured.

“I had noticed.” At his words, the two of them laughed. Susanna laughed without restraint. It was so sudden, that she noticed the Duke’s laugh quickly died. Even a couple of ladies turned to look at her from nearby.

They think I should laugh demurely and be shy!

The Duke seemed abruptly uncomfortable. He pulled on his cravat and glanced in the direction of the other young ladies. Susanna was made curious by such an action. He was the one who had come to talk to her, and had even been the first to laugh, but now… was he regretting it?

“I have embarrassed you, Your Grace,” she murmured in realization and nodded her head in the direction of the ladies. “Shall I laugh behind a clasped hand? Or perhaps I should have brought a fan with me and wafted it in front of my face like a butterfly as I laugh?”

“Most ladies do,” he pointed out slowly.

“Should I remind you?”

“No need. You are not like most ladies. I learned that this morning.” He didn’t look back to the group of ladies again but kept his focus upon her. “Would you tell me your name?”

“Susanna.” She found the word fell from her lips. “Lady Susanna Curtis, daughter of the late Earl of Gillet.”

“Lady Curtis.” He bowed his head to her again as if in second greeting.

“Call me Lady Susanna.”

“I could not do that.”

“Everyone does,” she insisted.

“But it would not be proper.”

“Are you a man that concerns yourself with being proper, Your Grace?” She waited, watching as he held his breath, pausing before answering her. No words came, and they just stared at each other. “Was that the wrong question to ask, Your Grace?”

“I find another question leaping to my mind.” He stepped toward her and offered his hand. “Would you care to dance, Lady Curtis?”

Chapter Three

Chapter Three

 

What has happened to me?

Anthony wasn’t sure what had gotten hold of him. Ordinarily, he would have been very aware of what his mother would think about him asking such a lady to dance. Her hair was wild, not quite tucked away as other ladies’ hair was, but it didn’t matter to him.

One dance. Something tells me it will be interesting.

“If I am to answer your question, Your Grace, will you answer mine first?” Lady Curtis was playful as she raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you a man of propriety?”

“Not propriety, exactly.” Anthony sought out a better word for it. “Perfection. I seek perfection, that is all.” Lady Curtis laughed again, before shaking her head. “I have amused you.”

“Purely in that your answer has perplexed me.” She lifted her hand between them. “Yet as you have answered my question, I will now answer yours. Yes, I will dance.”

Anthony took her hand with his. There was something there in that touch, a sort of warmth that jolted up his arm though he tried not to respond to it. Slowly, he led Lady Curtis through the ballroom, heading toward the dance floor. It only took a couple of steps for Anthony to notice people were glancing his way then they whispered.

Are they whispering about us?

He flinched at the possibility. He did not like the idea of being talked about in such a way. The mere thought made him look at Lady Curtis as she walked alongside him then another thought bothered him.

He waited until the previous dance ended then he led Lady Curtis onto the floor. With the opening music came a bow and a curtsy then the tune properly began, revealing a rather upbeat cotillion. With the opening steps they moved toward each other, circling one another in a four-time step though they didn’t once touch.

“What did you mean just now?” Anthony couldn’t keep his curiosity to himself. “When you said my answer to your question perplexed you.”

“That is really rather simple. You said you were a man that sought perfection.” She smiled even more with her own words. “Surely you have noticed that perfection is an impossible thing, Your Grace?”

“Impossible? Surely not.” He shook his head at the idea. They stopped circling one another then circled the dancers to the left. The forced separation meant he could not continue the conversation just yet. He still looked at her, with his eyes lingering, until they returned to face one another again. This time, they held a hand as they circled round. “Perfection is in everything, if one seeks to find it.”

“Is not perfection just a little… bland?” Lady Curtis wrinkled her nose with the idea.

Bland?

He didn’t understand.

“Surely it is the extraordinary which makes life interesting.” Lady Curtis mused as they switched hands and circled each other in the opposite direction. “It makes things thrilling.”

Thrilling.

He found himself repeating the word in his head, all too aware of the pressure of Lady Curtis’ hand in his. That touch was a thrill indeed, though he couldn’t quite understand why.

“How do you mean?” he asked, pretending innocence as they stopped to face one another.

“Would you like me to show you, Your Grace?” she asked, with a mischievous smile on her face.

Say no, you fool!

Anthony could feel his mind shouting out him. If people were already whispering about him dancing with Lady Curtis, then he didn’t want to give them any more cause to do so if she were to do something unorthodox, yet at the same time, he wanted to know more.

“Perhaps it is best we save this for another time,” he whispered to her as they moved to stand side by side.

“Ah, are you worried what onlookers may think?” she asked, goading him further. Anthony found his head jerked upward, and he looked at the crowd at the edge of the dance floor, curious to see how many people watched him. Some did, no doubt whispering of just whom the Duke was dancing with.

Then something odd happened. Lady Curtis went the wrong way in the dance.

“Lady Curtis, this way.” He took her hand rather quickly and steered her round.

“Oh, my apologies.” She smiled and followed him anyway, unruffled by the mistake.

Oh, good Lord. She does not know the dance!

He led her round another couple before they turned back to face each other. When she performed the wrong step, going off on the incorrect beat, Anthony felt a tightening in his stomach. This was never how he usually danced. His partners always danced elegantly without a single error.

“Not yet, Lady Curtis.” He held her hand, stopping her from going off on the wrong beat again. When he moved her forward, he found his mind whirring. “Was this what you meant by showing me imperfections?”

“You think I would intentionally go wrong in a dance? No, Your Grace. I am afraid that is merely natural imperfections you see. After all, we cannot all dance like angels, can we?” she said then stepped away from him.

Her words had caught his interest so much that he nearly made a mistake himself. He had to hurry to catch his place and circle two other gentlemen before returning to her again. This time, he took both of her hands, very aware of the warmth that was in her touch, even through her gloves. Some ladies would just barely touch his fingers as they danced, but not Lady Curtis. She firmly held onto him.

“I apologize if I have embarrassed you,” she whispered to him. “That was never my intention. I am merely a little –” She tripped. Anthony brought up his hand suddenly, reaching for her waist. One of his hands was holding hers whilst the other was placed on her waist, holding her up.

She seemed to catch her breath at the intimacy of that touch, just as he did.

It should not have felt like that.

Yet Anthony had undoubtedly felt a thrill. She smiled as they began to move again.

“I am a little clumsy,” she explained after a beat. “Thank you, for stopping me from falling.”

“It is no matter.” His eyes raked over her. Now able to see her completely, without the covering of the cloak that she had worn on horseback, he could admire her figure.

There were curves to her that the ivory gown seemed to hug. The sensuality of the way the silk brushed her hips in particular made him feel like less of a gentleman. Anthony tore his eyes upward, finding her face. She didn’t appear to have noticed the way he watched her.

“Do you regret asking me to dance, Your Grace? I would not blame you if you did.” He led her side to side for a minute before they returned to the beginning of the dance, circling without touching.

He didn’t answer her very quickly. Did he regret asking her?

“No. I do not regret it,” he murmured. “Yet I cannot help feeling…” Before he could finish the words, she nearly tripped again by standing on his foot. He caught her, though, and he tried to make it look like part of the dance, taking her hand and then leading her into another circling motion.

“Flustered?” she offered.

“Perhaps that is the best word.” He glanced off the dance floor, aware that some of his friends were looking his way now. Even Joseph was there, his good friend of many years. Joseph seemed quite amused though, tilting his head to the side and making the fair hair on his temple fall away as he watched the two of them dance. “Forgive me. I do not mean to speak ill of your dancing.”

“Ha! My feelings are not hurt so easily, Your Grace. I would not mind if you did.”

“It is merely that when it comes to dancing, like many things, I look for something that is a little more…” He paused as they parted from each other, circling other couples. At all times, his eyes were on her, only this time, she returned that look.

Anthony found he couldn’t explain this feeling. Lady Curtis was exactly the kind of lady he would normally stay away from, yet staying away from her seemed like an absurd thing in this moment.

“Perfect?” Lady Curtis offered as she returned to his side and offered her hands to him. He took them quickly, eager to show her this part of the dance before she could go wrong. “Perhaps it’s time to bend the rules of perfection a little.”

I like my rules.

“What do you strive for in life, Lady Curtis?” The words fell from Anthony’s lips surprisingly easily. After all, these rules were how he lived his life, and having someone challenge that idea was a little jarring.

“Imperfection,” Lady Curtis declared with a happy smile. “I once had a gentleman describe a perfect life to me. He told it as some sort of story of a young girl who grew up and did exactly what her father always told her to.”

They parted, standing opposite each other, and staring as another couple walked between them. She waited for them to pass before she continued on. “Then after that, she went onto her husband’s house and did everything he told her to do too. If that is a perfect life, well, then perfect doesn’t sound very happy to me.”

Anthony reached for her hands as they circled each other again. This time, he didn’t use the opportunity to glance at the ballroom or to even seek out Joseph. His eyes only rested on Lady Curtis.

“We are having a peculiarly serious conversation for two people who have just met,” he commented, watching as she laughed again. He was intrigued by the way she laughed. Never once did she hide that smile. There was something very freeing about it.

“Should we make small talk instead? Perhaps we should comment on the weather or the number of couples?” They turned and took both hands this time. He felt her fingers sliding against his own in such a way that something jolted in his stomach.

Attraction… this is not what I should feel.

“I don’t know about you, Your Grace, but I have infinitely preferred our more serious conversation. I feel as if I know you better.”

“Perhaps so.” Anthony felt the song draw to a close. He stepped back from Lady Curtis and released her hand, ready to bow. “I am strangely reminded of our race this morning.”

“You are?” she asked as she curtsied. To his surprise, she didn’t look down to the floor as she curtsied. Instead, she held his gaze, unashamedly.

“Well, I lost a challenge then. For some reason, I feel as if I have lost one now too. As if you have won an argument that I did not know we were having.”

“I was not aware we were arguing either,” she pointed out, ready to step off the floor.

“Not an argument, then. A debate.” Anthony eagerly stepped forward, taking her hand, aware that she was prepared to escort herself away.

“Do you think I will fall if I do not hold a gentleman’s hand to walk away from this floor?” she whispered to him, clearly amused as she smiled.

“It is what is done, Lady Curtis. A gentleman always escorts a lady away.”

“Well, we best do what is the done thing then, shouldn’t we?” She was playful as she took his hand and let him lead her off.

Anthony held back his temptation to laugh. There was something incredibly intriguing to him about this woman. He didn’t quite understand how he was both charmed by her and flustered. He knew people would still be looking their way, whispering, but he tried his best not to meet their gazes. He drew Lady Curtis across the room, returning her near to the drinks’ table where he had found her.

“It was quite an intriguing dance, Lady Curtis,” he confessed as he released her hand.

“Oh, now I have learned even more about you,” she said with sudden delight.

“What is that?” Anthony knew he should walk away now. Perhaps he should find another lady, one that danced much finer to return to the floor with, so he could cement himself in his watchers’ minds as a good dancer. For some reason, his feet stayed exactly where they were.

“I have learned you are kind, Your Grace.” Lady Curtis held his gaze as she spoke. “I embarrassed you in our dance –”

“I never said that.”

“You did not need to. It was easy to read, and I can hardly blame you for it. You would hardly be the first man to be embarrassed by a poor dance partner.” She glanced down for the first time. It was as if she felt the truth of her own words before she met his gaze once more. “Yet you complimented the dance anyway. Yes, you have revealed yourself to be a kind man.”

“I am not certain I deserve that compliment, but as you have given me one, may I compliment you too, Lady Curtis?” he asked, taking a step toward her.

“Good luck,” she murmured. “It may be hard to think of one.”

“You think so ill of yourself?” He was amazed, holding back his bafflement.

“I have a mirror, Your Grace.” She shrugged as if thinking ill of herself did not bother her. “But pray, go on, I would be intrigued to hear the compliment.”

“It may not have been the perfect dance when it comes to the steps executed –”

“Is this a compliment?” Her mischievous smile was back in place.

“Yet I enjoyed it. I certainly do not enjoy every dance, even when the steps are performed just right.” Anthony reached for Lady Curtis’ hand. For the first time, she seemed stumped for words — so much so that as he took her hand, she gasped, startled by the touch.

Lifting the gloved fingers to his lips, he kissed it. Such a spark erupted through that touch that his heart thudded harder in chest. He could have sworn she felt something too, for her breathing fluttered and the swell of her chest rose and fell a little.

“I wish you a good evening, My Lady.” He was about to step away when he noticed her hair was in a greater disarray than before. She turned her head which seemed to make the effect worse. “Oh, your hair.” He pointed to it.

Lifting her hand to it, she pulled down a clip from her head. It released another one of those mad curls. Anthony thought back to the moment he had seen her run her hands through her hair that morning. Once again, he imagined doing it himself. He had to keep his hand tightly in her own to stop himself from living out such a dream.

“These things never stay in place — not with my hair,” she said with amusement.

“Would you like to find somewhere to put it back in?” He was looking back and forth, ready to seek out a door for her to find a private space until her laughter caught his ears.

“Whatever for? The curl has fallen now.”

“Yes, but people…” He glanced around. Close by, he saw Countess Rumpton’s daughters standing together. They were staring at him and Lady Curtis, pointing at her hair and evidently belittling her for it, for one of the sisters flustered with her own hair.

“People will think ill of me for it? Oh, well that has made up my mind then.” Lady Curtis abruptly took her hand out of his.

He snapped his attention back toward her, longing for that touch again, only to find his upturned palm became host to something else other than her hand. Resting on his palm was a hair clip. Silver in design, it was shaped exquisitely into a dragonfly with a blue enamel body though the tail was bent a little out of shape at the end.

“It is a gift for you, Your Grace.”

“What for?” he asked in surprise, holding up the clip between them. It was cold against his skin.

“Because I did not care at the moment if people whispered about my fallen hair. I feel bad that it should bother you so much to cause you discomfort. Take this gift from me as a little message.” She took his fingers and curled them around his palm, making sure he kept a firm hold on the clip.

That touch…

They had been touching each other for longer than was really proper though, but oh, how he liked it. She had started a burn in his gut with that touch, and he just wanted it to continue on. His mind wandered, thinking of what other touches could happen. He imagined sliding those white gloves off her hands and lifting her fingers to his lips.

“What is the message?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level, so he did not betray how much her touch had affected him.

“It is not always important what others think of us, Your Grace.” With these words, Lady Curtis offered another smile, and then she walked off, leaving him behind, standing there with his arm outstretched and the clip in his palm.

He could still feel the tingling in his hand and up his arm as if her touch lingered there with him. His eyes followed her, watching as she disappeared through the crowd of people.

Desire stirred within him, boldly. He could imagine running after her, taking more of those clips out of her hair and bending her face to his. If the touch of her hand was a thrill, then what could it be like to touch her lips with his own?”

“Anthony?”

“Oh God.” Anthony placed a hand to his heart, jumping as he turned round to face his friend, Joseph.

“Who was that you were dancing with? She was not like your usual partners.”

“I know her name, but in truth, Joseph, I am not sure who she really is at all.”

Yet… I rather like the idea of getting to know her better.

Did you like this preview? Don’t forget to leave me a comment below!

 

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16 comments

  1. Love this. She’s cute, sassy and not holding to social mores. He’s been so caught up in the straight and narrow that his world shrank. They can learn a lot from each other. More… 😃

  2. I can already tell that this is going to be a great read, amusing too. Can’t wait to see how this plays out with the perfect staid Anthony & the lovely Susanna with a wit & mind of her own. How sad that we as readers don’t see more of that with the women of that time.

  3. A stickler Duke and an errant ‘spinster’ meet unexpectedly and find themselves strangely attracted to each other. I am anxious to read the rest of the story and see how these two seemingly different people resolve their differences and become friends, or maybe, more than friends.

  4. The characters are different although likeable and the story is intriguing so far
    .I loved reading the preview and I was disappointed there was no more chapters so I can’t wait until 30th July.

  5. What a great tease!
    This is going to be a wonderful book!
    Love the cover.
    I predict this will a 5 star book!

  6. Loved what I have read so far sound like a great read until Saturday when I can read the rest of the story.

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